Allan Cooper by Frédéric Gayer
Just to whet your appetite. These are brand new poems by Allan Cooper. One of them — “I Have My Silence” — will be published in his imminent collection Everything We’ve Loved Comes Back to Find Us to be published by Gaspereau Press in April.
How often they’ve come back to me
in the tall house of summer
like the scent of the evening primrose
rising from the earth
men and women who worked the fields
and woods and kitchens,
who dreamed and loved and despaired
the same as we do, who held new infants
in their arms and rocked them
by oil light burning down
to a small flame, the rhythms
of their conversations
gone out further now
than any star we will ever see.
My grandfather opens
the woodshed door, a pail
in his hand, walking to the fields
where he will dig the new potatoes
before the heavy rains. My grandmother–
who at eighty taught me how
to clean the spring head
where the water flowed from bedrock–
is singing to me through my fever, her voice
mingling with the sound of the brook.
I swear my small body rose above the house
and looked down on the black roof,
the winglike shadows cast across the lawn
as if someone would come and carry me
away, and maybe they almost did.
When my fever broke, I could feel the damp
cloth on my forehead, replaced again
and again throughout the night.
I could hear my grandparents
talking low in the kitchen. It’s good
when they come back to find us, hold us,
guide us. They loved us unconditionally.
Someone places a hand on my forehead,
then their footsteps fading down the hall
as I drift in the sound of the running spring,
the deep sleep of boyhood.
GLENN GOULD PLAYING
My moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky
Glenn Gould, in large rimmed glasses, is stooped low over the
like a rider on a horse. His face is what music looks like
when it takes on a human form. His fingers are ten reins guiding
eighty-eight of them, low notes as if rising from Hades,
high notes like the feminine tone of spring.
His hands change positions, the right playing the low notes
like fox sparrows suddenly arriving in spring, the sounds
that a human heart makes when it’s totally in love with the
Glenn Gould is playing, and he seems a little unsteady in the
his chair a bit rickety, as if it might fall at any moment;
but it doesn’t, and he hovers so close to the keys he can taste
coaxing the flavour and fragrance from each note. Now he’s
singing to the keys,
like a monk saying prayers, and the notes move faster,
almost too fast for us to follow;
it’s as if the piano could resonate at a certain frequency
and suddenly implode, the strings collapsing on the sound board,
the sound board falling through the wooden frame…
Things grow softer. These are notes we’ve heard before, but never
feathery, like a father singing to a child, the last words we’ll say
an entire barren field suddenly filled with volunteer poplars.
The notes begin to chase each other. They are waves breaking
on the shore of Lake Superior, thousands of neutrinos moving
through our bodies
at once. It’s a Bach fugue, and the sound is like losing yourself in
for the first time, the sound of cells dividing, and you’re nameless
as you were the moment you were born.
Glenn Gould is playing, and for the black horse of the piano
there is only one rider, and for that rider
there is only the light drawn from the gloom
and darkness clinging to the edges of the light.
THE SNAIL AND THE ROSE
Is there a symbiotic relationship between these pale yellow-
green snails and the old Irish roses? This one has climbed over
three feet up a stem which is guarded by thorns that would
pierce my finger if I grasped it. The snail is about the size of a
quarter, although there’s no money in this snail’s life. He lives for
free, as most things do on this planet. I’ve seen them before,
clinging to a leaf, or making their way up through a wild jungle
More and more it is the quiet things around me that give me
pleasure. If this snail makes any music, or has a voice, I can’t hear
it. He lives in the heaven of his day, carrying his house on his
When he dies the house will be left behind a little while, like
the spinsters’ house with grey clapboard, the dolls in the cedar
chest still waiting for the whisper of a child.
THE APPLE TREE
—in memory of Galway Kinnell
One afternoon in the 1940s, in summer,
a car from the Boston States or the Carolinas
or the tip of the Florida Keys
drove by this gravel bank,
and someone opened a car window
and threw out an apple core, that landed
precisely here, and one dark brown
seed, the oval of a water shrew’s eye, took root
and began to grow, at first a thin, small question,
then a wiry, almost defiant voice…
Its thick, squat trunk is as shaggy as a Shetland pony,
wild as those Zen Buddhist monks
who sit quietly, cross-legged,
In late May or early June
the blossoms begin to open from taut buds,
at first a rosy pink, then
a rich whiteness blending in,
like cream poured into a china bowl.
And when the rain falls, the leaves
make a tapping sound,
like someone knocking lightly
at a door, someone who has
come a long way to be here, now,
in this world; someone rich
with the odour of spring, pungent
as wet earth, the first blades
of new grass, the smell of bark,
like an old keeper of small horses.
And an old woman, rich in perfume
that carries with it
rosewater to an altar
where the earth is worshipped,
and the transformation that will happen
when a winged one comes near
and enters a blossom…
A grandmother, who loved Evening in Paris,
gathered apples from the wild trees each fall
and carried them in buckets or bowls
to her steaming autumn kitchen;
she made apple sauce, apple
pies, apple strudel, apple crisp,
and baked apples in brown sugar,
where nothing is wasted.
So many wild trees at the side of the road,
in ditches, in sudden meadows and clearings,
growing from stone walls, cellar holes,
through ribs and femurs
gathered back by the earth.
And for every ancient tree that
falls, another takes its place,
and another, in the long lineage
of trees, one ring at a time, one
blossoming and fading at a time.
Apples ripen, and the deer come,
and some stand on their hind
legs like men reaching up
into the highest branches for
the sweetest and most coveted apples,
which have been kissed by the sky.
Old apple trees that, if they were love poems
would be both male and female, male and male,
or two young girls holding hands beneath the branches
as the rain comes down
on a day that will never end for them.
A day when the blossoms were ready
to fall, and high up
in the branches
three dozen cedar waxwings in a row,
and as one petal fell
it was taken in the beak of the nearest bird
and passed to the next,
and the next, male to male,
male to female, until it reached
the last waxwing at the end
of the branch, and she ate it…
Not one thing is wasted,
not one petal or word, like these words
that I pass to you now: compassion,
care, tenderness, hope, joy,
forgiveness; and love, that final word
at the end of our branch, the end of our rope,
that stubborn word we carry with us,
tough as a seed, the best for last.
I HAVE MY SILENCE
I’ve lived a good time.
Not as long as a saguaro cactus
or a sequoia, but a good time.
One second can last a thousand years.
And no amount of study or joy can prepare us
for the ecstasy that Rumi and Mirabai felt.
I’ve seen and felt things
and remained silent.
I’ve watched the fox sparrows migrating in fall
and kept quiet, although inside
I’ve felt a wing rising,
moving out across the waters.
The last thing I like to do
at the end of the day
is walk out and greet the dusk.
I say nothing.
But I might just show
this multi-coloured coat
like Joseph’s, woven from everything
I’ve ever loved. Can you see it?
I’ve lived a good time.
I have work to do. I have my silence
as the sky does
every morning when the sun breaks over the hills.
Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.
Absolutely on Music is the kind of book that makes you want to go find the music for yourself… These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening. —Carolyn Ogburn
Haruki Murakami & Seigi Ozawa
352 pages; $27.95
“…all I want to say is that Mahler’s music looks hard at first sight, and it really is hard, but if you read it closely and deeply with feeling, it’s not such confusing and inscrutable music after all. It’s got all these layers piled one on top of another, and lots of different elements emerging at the same time, so in effect it sounds complicated.” —Seiji Ozawa, Absolutely on Music
Absolutely on Music, by novelist and music aficionado Haruki Murakami and legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa (translated by Jay Rubin) is the best kind of eavesdropping. Although the book is (not inaccurately) described as series of “conversations,” the topic throughout is music, and the conversations appropriately become Murakami’s interviews of Ozawa regarding his long and storied career in the aftermath of diagnosis of esophageal cancer. Ozawa explains that “until my surgery, I was too busy making music every day to think about the past, but once I started remembering, I couldn’t stop, and the memories came back to me with a nostalgic urge. This was a new experience for me. Not all things connected with major surgery are bad. Thanks to Haruki, I was able to recall Maestro Karajan, Lenny, Carnegie Hall, the Manhattan Center, one after another…”
Murakami (b. 1949) is best known as a novelist, including Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (1994) and 1Q84 (2009-2010). He has received many awards for his work, including the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize. He has published several collections of short stories and many works of nonfiction, including Underground, about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Music often plays a strong role in Murakami’s writing. Scholars have long been drawn to exploring the musical worlds evoked in Murakami’s novels; they’ve created playlists and written dissertations (and created more playlists. There is even a special resource on Murakami’s website that provides references to the musicians, songs, and albums mentioned in his writing. The biography of Murakami written by his long-time translator, Jay Rubin, is titled Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words.
“How did I learn to write?” Murakami asks. “By listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”
Murakami’s and Ozawa’s daughters were friends, but the two artists only knew one another casually. They never spoke of their work to one another until Ozawa became ill with esophageal cancer in December, 2009. Because Ozawa had to limit his work, Murakami noted a new eagerness when they met to turn conversations to the topic of music, noting that it might have been the fact that he was not talking to a fellow musician that “set him at ease.” The task of publishing these conversations came from a story Ozawa told Murakami about Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein’s 1962 performance of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. Murakami writes, “’What a shame it would be to let such a fascinating story just evaporate,’ I thought. ‘Somebody ought to record it and put it on paper.’ And, brazen as it may seem, the only ‘somebody’ that happened to cross my mind at the moment was me.”
Seiki Ozawa (b. 1935) began conducting as a boy in Japan when a rugby injury sprained his hand too badly for him to continue his piano studies. His skill soon brought him to the United States, where in 1960 he won first prize for student conducting at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood festival. The young Ozawa studied conducting under legendary conductors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, who both figure prominently in these conversations. He went on to serve as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 years, and as the principal conductor of the Vienna State Opera. He has received many honors and awards, including a Kennedy Center Honor and two Grammy Awards.
It’s interesting to note that the collection opens with a discussion of who is really in control during a performance of a concerto: the soloist or the orchestra’s conductor? Murakami initiates these interviews not with Ozawa’s own recordings, but with a discussion of Bernstein’s well-known disavowal of the interpretation of the Brahms First Piano Concerto as performed by Glenn Gould and the New York Philharmonic in 1964. Bernstein spoke to the audience prior to the performance, saying:
I cannot say I am in total agreement with Mr. Gould’s conception, and this raises the interesting question: “What am I doing conducting it?” [Audience murmurs, tittering.] I’m conducting it because Mr. Gould is so valid and serious an artist that I must take seriously anything he conceives in good faith, and his conception is interesting enough so that I feel you should hear it too.
Gould often performed with tempi so eccentric that it was difficult to regulate his interpretation together with that of the orchestra. It was this that prompted a discussion between Murakami and Ozawa as to which artist, conductor or soloist, was really in charge of a performance. But in this dialogue of two renowned artists, Seiji Ozawa and Haruki Murakami, who is in charge?
Though it is Ozawa’s history, the book ultimately belongs to Murakami. The comparison to Glenn Gould is an apt one, I feel, for Murakami’s prosody is, like Gould’s musical syntax, both engaging and strongly idiosyncratic. The language is unmistakably Murakami’s throughout. The syntax and rhythm of the words (at least as translated by long-time Murakami translator Jay Rubin) could be lifted straight from the page of any Murakami novel. I kept feeling as if a cat were gazing silently from the other room. If you are a fan of Murakami’s prose, then you will enjoy this book as well.
The conversational settings (the book consists of six conversations, separated by shorter “interludes”) are described only in the loosest terms. The first conversation, for example, takes place in Murakami’s home “in Kanagawa Prefecture, to the west of Tokyo.” Albums and CDs are pulled off the shelf to play as they talk, but the shelves themselves are never described; it’s as if they are being pulled from thin air. There’s something of the animated drawing about these conversations, the way that the suggestion of a particular recording prompts an immediate search for music. In the example here, the search is immediate. Though we haven’t any idea where the two are seated (or if they are seated), no sense of the room, or the light, the time of day or night, the mention of Lalo’s piece for orchestra and solo violin initiates a small flurry of activity:
Ozawa: “We [the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ozawa] Lalo’s Spanish something-or-another. She was barely twenty years old at the time.
Murakami: Edouard Lalo’s Symphonie Espanole. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of that somewhere.
Rustling sounds as I hunt for the record, which finally turns up.
Ozawa: This is it! This is it! Wow, I haven’t seen this thing for years.
Here, too, you get a sense of the way in which Murakami, the first-person author, enters the page as himself rather than via the transcriptionist of his own words. He’s “Murakami” except when making “rustling sounds” as he searches for the record he has in mind, which “finally turns up.” Those details—unexplained rustling, the “finally turns up,” which insists on being read with a kind of drama whose merit is uncertain—is classic Murakami.
There’s no doubt, however, that Murakami knows his stuff. As Ozawa himself puts it in the book’s afterward, “I have lots of friends who love music, but Haruki takes it way beyond the bounds of sanity. Jazz, classics: he doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of this dialogue comes through the two very different ways in which they’ve each come to know the music that they love. For Murakami, his knowledge of music comes through avid and detailed listening to recorded music, supplemented by live performances when possible. As he admits, “a piece of music and the material thing on which it was recorded often comprised an indivisible unit.”
Ozawa, on the other hand, is far less familiar with recorded works, even his own. His knowledge of music comes from his study of it. His first encounter with Mahler was through reading a score: “I had never heard them on records. I didn’t have the money to buy records then, and I didn’t even have a machine to play them on.” The music itself was revelatory, “a huge shock for me—until then I never even knew that music like that existed…I could feel the blood draining from my face. I had to order my own copies right then and there. After that, I started reading Mahler like crazy—the First, the Second, the Fifth.” The first time he ever heard Mahler performed was as Bernstein’s assistant at the New York Philharmonic. Because of the way in which he learned the repertoire, Ozawa, unlike Murakami, was less familiar with the range of recorded performances of any given piece. Murakami is struck by what he calls “the fundamental difference that separates the way we understand music.” He finds that difference between a music-maker and a music lover to be an almost-literal wall, “especially high and thick when that music maker is a world class professional. But still, that doesn’t have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least, that’s how I feel about it, because music is a thing of such breadth and generosity.”
The first conversation revolves around a variety of recordings of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. A 1957 performance with Glenn Gould and the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Herbert von Karajan is compared with Gould’s recording with Leonard Bernstein and the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (composed of members of the NY Philharmonic) in 1959. The two then listen to Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the same concerto with Bernstein in 1964, which is taken at such a rapid tempo that Ozawa exclaims in astonishment, “It’s kind of an inconceivable performance.” They listen to another recording on period instruments, or the actual instruments for which Beethoven would have been writing: Jos van Immerseel performing on the fortepiano, rather than the modern-day piano, for instance. (Oddly, neither the orchestra nor the conductor is named.) This performance provokes the kind of observation that will delight the serious student of music, or anyone who enjoys thinking about sound: Ozawa says, almost as an aside, that in this period-instrument recording that “you can’t hear the consonants.”
Ozawa: The leading edge of each sound.
Murakami: I still don’t get it.
Ozawa: Hmm, how can I put it? If you sing a-a-a, it’s all vowel. But if you add consonants to each of the a’s, you get something like ta-ka-ka, or ha-sa-sa. It’s a question of which consonants you add. It’s easy enough to make the first ta or ha, but the hard part is what follows. If it’s all consonant—ta-t-t—the melody falls apart. But the expression of the notes changes depending on whether you go ta-raa-raa or ta-waa-waa. To have a good musical ear means having control over the consonants and the vowels. When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out.
Murakami next brings out the 1982 recording of the piece with Rudolph Serkin again at the piano, and Ozawa himself conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Here, we’re privy to Ozawa’s self-critique—“Now, this is ‘direction.’ Hear those four notes? Tahn-tahn-tahn-tahn….I should have done more of that.”—and his suggestion that Serkin, who was now late in life, realized that it was probably “his last performance of this piece, that he won’t have another chance to record it while he’s alive, and so he’s going to play it the way he wants to. Period.”
Finally, they listen to Mitsuko Uchida’s 1994 recording with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the baton of Kurt Sanderling. Earlier, the two have discussed the use of silence (the Japanese use the word ma to describe this quality) and the way in which Gould uses ma so naturally in his interpretation. Now they find a similar quality in Uchida’s playing, the silent intervals, her “free spacing of the notes.”
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.3 / Mitsuko Uchida, Seiji Ozawa. Saito Kinen Orchestra
This concept of ma comes back as Ozawa describes to Murakami the conductor’s role in bringing the orchestra in following a break in the sound:
Murakami: When you’ve got an empty moment and you have to glide into it, the musicians all watch the conductor, I suppose?
Ozawa: That’s right. I’m the one responsible for putting it all together in the end, so they’re all looking at me. In that passage we just heard, the piano goes tee…and then there’s an empty space [ma] and the orchestra glides in, right? It makes a huge difference whether you play tee-yataa or tee…yataa. Or there are some people who add expression by coming in without a break: teeyantee. So if you do it by kind of “sneaking in” as they say in English, the way we heard, it can go wrong. It’s tremendously difficult to make the orchestra all breathe together at exactly the same point. You have all these different instruments in different positions on the stage, so each of them hears the piano differently, and that tends to throw off the breath of each player by a little. So to avoid that kind of slip-up, the conductor should come in with a big expression on his face like this—teeyantee.
Murakami: So you indicate the empty interval [ma] with your face and body language.
Ozawa: Right, right. You show with your face and the movement of your hands whether they should take a long breath or a short breath. That little bit makes a big difference….it’s not so much a matter of calculation as it is the conductor’s coming to understand, through experience, how to breathe.
Each conversation focuses very loosely on a topic, but the strength of this book is found in its soaring, tangential details. The second conversation revolves around Ozawa’s performances of the Four Brahms Symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the manner of organization within orchestral groups today, particulars of instrumentation in the horn section of Brahms’ First Symphony; Brahms evokes Ozawa’s mentor, Hideo Saito. Ozawa’s Saito Kinen Orchestra was formed to mark the 10th anniversary of the great conductor’s death. The third conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences during the 1960s as he moves from New York Philharmonic, where he was assistant to Leonard Bernstein, to working with the Chicago Symphony, to three recordings Ozawa made with the Toronto Symphony of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique.
Seiji Ozawa conducts Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique, Toronto Symphony Orchestra 1967. 1st Movement: Rêveries – Passions.
In the fourth conversation, the two discuss the works of Gustav Mahler, a composer who’s work wasn’t widely performed until Leonard Bernstein championed his works in the 1960s. Of course, Murakami explains, one of the reasons Mahler wasn’t performed was that his work, like the works of all Jews, was “quite literally wiped out over the twelve long years following 1933, when the Nazis took power, to the end of the war in 1945.”
This is a fascinating dissection of both the composition and orchestration of Mahler’s nine symphonies and a history of the performance styles that were used over the decades that Ozawa has been conducting them. The emerging prevalence of recordings actually changed the performance styles; as recording moved away from recording the overall sound, focusing instead on individual instruments, so too did the tendency of orchestras to aim for a more transparent, detailed performance. The whole chapter on Mahler is one of the richest in the book. Yet, here’s Murakami, breaking in again to note Ozawa “eats a piece of fruit.”
Ozawa: Mmm, this is good. Mango?
Murakami: No, it’s a papaya.
Other times, Murakami’s interruptions are to provide poetic interpretation that comes in surprising passages, however lovely his descriptions may be. For example, while listening to the third movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, Murakami notes that “the clarinet adds an indefinably mysterious touch to the melody, the strange tones of a bird crying out a prophecy deep in the forest.” The line here, not unlike the mysterious touch of the clarinet, is surprising only because it is so rare; it’s a language from another time. In this book, the magic comes from two skilled craftsmen talking about their work with curiosity and affection.
The fifth conversation revolves around Ozawa’s experiences conducting opera, both staged and in concert performances. He recalls being “booed in Milan” at La Scala. Murakami presses him, asking twice, “Do you think there was some resistance to the idea of an Asian conducting Italian opera at La Scala?”
Osawa replies, “The sound I gave Tosca was not the Tosca they were used to.”
“Back then, weren’t you the only Asian conducting at a first-class European opera house?”
“Yes,” says Ozawa. “I suppose I was.”
That the two men are both Japanese, conversing in Japanese, is an issue that glides just below the surface of the conversation. Many times, Ozawa credits his lack of English fluency to explain why he simply didn’t notice the political waters in which he swam as a young conductor in New York and Europe. When he recalls the days in which Ravinia, the prestigious music festival outside of Chicago, was an all-white establishment (in the context of bringing Louis Armstrong to the festival), neither acknowledge that his very presence contradicts the memory of “all white”.
The final conversation centers on the Seiji Ozawa International Academy Switzerland. It’s a summer chamber music program that works with promising young musicians in small ensembles and extraordinary master instructors such as violinist Pamela Frank, cellist Sadao Harada, violist Nobuku Imai, and violinist Robert Mann. It’s a program designed around the very principles Ozawa learned from his first teacher, Hideo Saito.
Reading Conversations on the subway, or a cafeteria, or a picnic table in the late autumn sun, I could usually call to mind some of the music under discussion from memory, down to the scratchy sound of cracks in the vinyl, the thick humidity of the needle tracing silence between movements, as if it were playing just a the limit of earshot. But when I sat down to write about the book, I felt compelled to search out the actual recordings. I found many of them on Murakami’s website, which (as I mentioned earlier) contains playlists of works referenced in his other books. Other pieces, though not all, can be found online. These conversations left me wanting more, in the best possible way. They made me want to go sit with a friend in the living room, listening to records, one after another, late into the evening.
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.
Camilo Carrara (1968) is a musician based in Sao Paulo, Brazil whose work refuses to be categorized. His recordings range from classical to popular and jazz, and anywhere in between. Though he’s often described – accurately – as a guitarist, he plays, arranges and composes for many instruments, including 12-string guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, and other strummed instruments. He is also a teacher and a Sound Branding Consultant. He has done more than sixty solo and ensemble recordings, and his performance career spans three continents. He’s played concerts in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, USA, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, and throughout Brazil. He teaches guitar at the annual National Music Festival in Maryland, and has been the guest artist and soloist with orchestras throughout Brazil and worldwide.
Carrara also works as a producer, particularly in his long-time work with the HSBC Christmas Concert, one of the largest holiday events in Brazil. Since 2011, he has been the arranger and producer of this concert. At the heart of this event is a children’s choir, 160 children who are the victims of violence or who are orphaned. Carrara has a degree in classical guitar from the University of São Paulo, and is finishing a Masters Degree in Strategic Marketing Management at the São Paulo University School of Economics and Management. He teaches at Faculty Cantareira in São Paulo, and at the Music in the Mountains Festival, in Poços de Caldas, Minas Gerais.
One of the most interesting things about this conversation for me was Carrara’s commitment to creating music that communicates to a broad listenership, and the limitations of a single identity. This is based in part on his background growing up in Brazil where his father was imprisoned and tortured as a result of his political convictions. Carrara spent nine months of 1989 traveling and busking throughout Europe, and was present in Berlin when the wall between East and West Germany was torn down. His career seems to suggest that the walls between traditionally separate musical traditions may not be as permanent as they may seem.
Carolyn Ogburn: As I learned more about you for this interview, I was struck by how many interests you have. It seems to me that in general people – professionals of the music field or any other manner of profession – are required to be specialists these days. But your career has blended popular and classical performance (on guitar, mandolin, and other stringed instruments) as well as teaching, composing and producing, and you’re studying for a graduate degree in marketing. How do you answer the question, “What do you do?”
Camilo Carrara: Carolyn, how interesting you start our conversation with this question. In fact, after studying strategic marketing management for over 2 years, this is an issue for me. After all, it is part of the strategic marketing technique to define well what is the focus of your business and what products you sell. For anyone who is an artist and only moves in the world of arts, sometimes talk about product and market gets to be a heresy. But it doesn’t need to be so.
In fact, I consider myself all that you listed above and depending on the situation, on the context, I respond differently. Sometimes I say that I am a musician. Sometimes I stand as a solo guitarist. But I am also a multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, electric guitar, 12-string guitar, cavaquinho — typical Brazilian instrument used in choro and samba), composer, arranger, improviser, teacher, and music producer. I also work as a music expert on causes court involving copyright and as Sound Branding consultant – the discipline that creates and manages the sonic identity of the brands.
I usually feel good doing many things, despite knowing that this can be risky, professionally speaking. Doing many things have a price and returning to the issue of strategic marketing, I know that my challenge is to communicate all these multiple skills to the public without it look like I’m an imposter (exaggerating a bit), or it seems that I do not know how to do anything well done. The issue of communication is one of my biggest challenges today.
I consider myself very fortunate to have had a very consistent musical training and at the same time I know many of my limitations. All I do is the result of hard study and work and it is very gratifying to be recognized by my peers and also by the general public. In fact, I think it was because of this sort of “more general profile” that I was invited to participate in the National Music Festival in Maryland, in the last five years.
What should be a very short and quick response …
CO: (laughing) I think many artists can relate to your answer…we do many things, I think. Though not always with as much expertise! Do you think there is a push these days to be more diversified as a musician? And – since you’ve been at this for a while, have you noticed any changes in that since your early years as a musician?
CC: I found it curious that to reflect on what it means to be a diverse musician, it reminded me of a great Brazilian literature professor, Alfredo Bosi, with whom I had classes at the university, at the time I was a linguistic student. He spoke a few times about the phenomenon of “repetition” and “novelty.” And this is very interesting and beautiful. According to him, the repetition causes the sensation of comfort as the novelty causes alert feeling. That is, learning to dose these two phenomena is a matter of life. We need both to live. Thinking specifically within the framework of creation, in the framework of the creative world, this is a central issue for composers, writers, painters, etc. But it is also a very useful way to think about demand and understand how the market works: almost everything we do is in order to fulfill the wishes and needs.
I have the feeling that diversity is linked to the concept of the novelty. If contemporary classical composers are looking for other solutions to attract public, for example, it means that they feel that the public is starved for news. Or that they are tired of repeating. In this sense, I see the resemblance to my student days. There has always been this kind of movement: the musicians seek to know what are the interests of the public or the public demand for what is interesting musically.
CC: This event attracts thousands of people every year and was created 25 years ago. It is especially beautiful because the center of attention is a children’s choir. These are children who receive special attention or because they were abandoned or victims of some type of violence. It is a work done with great care throughout the year. Musically speaking the concept is orchestral. It was developed by the conductor of the choir Dulce Primo. She is an amazing person and brought a lot of sophistication for a considered popular presentation. The interesting thing is that she managed to mix very well the influences of classical music with what is richer in Brazilian popular music. It is the meeting of polyphony and the richness of Brazilian rhythms.
My role in this event is to be arranger and producer. It’s a big challenge. I write the orchestral arrangements, record instruments and edit the audio. I take care of all the steps to (record and create) a CD. Several months of preparation to (be heard by) an average of twenty thousand people a day. They estimate that four hundred thousand people attend the show every year. I also study this event from the point of view of the impact of marketing. The concert is sponsored by a major bank and can be considered one of the largest brand content event in the world. It is an amazing way for brands to create emotional connections with their customers and the general public.
CO: Many of us outside Brazil have been watching your country with great interest as we read news stories of political and economic turmoil. (Outside the Olympics, of course!) I read with interest an article from the Guardian that you’d shared titled “The End of Capitalism.” Artists, of course, have a unique responsibility – that is, quite literally, the “ability to respond” – to social upheaval like that we are experiencing today. I guess my question is, how do you see the role of the musician in times of social unrest?
CC: I think that when artists manifest themselves politically they have the advantage of hearing. These are people who have more access to the public and it can make a difference in practical terms. The common people, especially in poor countries, are heavily influenced by artists. It is an important question of responsibility and should be considered.
The other big issue is related to the quality of political positioning. Not every artist thinks critically about politics. It should be, but is not. It is very common to see artists talking a lot of nonsense. Of course, there are the “privileged heads,” the artists who are very well prepared intellectually and politically. These figures can make an important difference in the course of history. If I’m not mistaken, this article you refer to “The End of Capitalism” came against what I was studying at the time. (It) deals with the shared economy, a subject that interests me especially. I do not think we are seeing the end of capitalism, but a transformation. It is no longer possible that in the twenty-first century, (there) still exists misery. This has to end quickly.
CO: Speaking of social unrest…Whenever I read your bio, the year of 1989 which you spent traveling the world is almost always mentioned. This must have been a very important year for you, and it certainly was important globally, as the Berlin Wall fell, and the cold war drew to an end. Do you want to talk some about how this year affected your growth as a musician?
CC: It was a very special year in my life and coincided with some very important events historically. In 1989 I was an itinerant musician, traveling for nine months throughout Europe. I had the luck and privilege of celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution in Paris and witnessing first-hand the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was also in Budapest, near the Romanian Revolution, when the people overthrew the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. I could feel the energy of transformation, but without the historical dimension that I have today. I was 21 and had been raised in a left-wing political environment. My father is a communist and was imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship. I went to Berlin thinking to know the Eastern part. I was very curious to see firsthand how it worked a communist country. And I got to spend a whole day in the eastern part. Of course, it was very little time to form an opinion. But I remember that I felt the contrasting atmosphere, the simplicity of the people. Culturally, in just one day I could go to an amazing concert at the Berlin Staatskapelle and also bought an incredible amount of sheet music, something unimaginable in Brazil at that time. It was very striking and exciting.
A few days later I was surprised by my German friends who came home elated with the news of the fall of the wall. We went to the street and spent many hours in the crowd. A pity I could not speak German. I felt I was losing the details. But some things impressed me a lot to see. I remember it was very shocking to see long lines of East Germans enter the big brand stores such as BMW, Mercedes, or even sexy shops. It was very impressive. At that time West Berlin was stunning and shiny. The city shone. I had the feeling of seeing those pure people being contaminated by lust. It was really crazy!
CC: Thinking about it, that kind of transformation started with the change of the socialist paradigm may even be associated with this new model of capitalism in which rethinks the limits of profit, especially in terms of sustainability. We can not admit the misery nor admit the destruction of natural resources. Nowadays any revolution is possible because of technology. The connectivity already enables it. Ultimately we are talking about a social pact on important issues for everyone. No wonder that the great fortunes of the world are collaborating (regarding) key issues such as hunger and education. See Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. The Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann, richest man in the country, is revolutionizing education in the country. These are just a few examples.
CO: When many Americans think of Brazilian classical music, we might be limited to a few well-known figures, such as Villa-Lobos, or Laurindo Almeida. Who are we missing?
CC: We have an interesting musical history as the formation of a Brazilian musical identity, which could be defined as the synthesis between European, African and indigenous cultures. Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), is undoubtedly the great Brazilian composer of all time. (He) can be considered the inventor of a Brazilian sound. If the country has a unique sound, Villa-Lobos was responsible for it. The amazing thing is how his work is so little known, even here.
It is unfair to leave to point other very important composers, but I think for a first survey of Brazilian composers, I would highlight, in chronological order, composers with symphonic approach:
Carlos Gomes (1836-1896)
Henrique Oswald (1852-1931)
Alberto Nepomuceno (1864-1920)
Francisco Mignone (1897-1986)
Radamés Gnatalli (1906-1988)
Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993)
César Guerra Peixe (1914-1993)
Hans Joachim Koellreutter (1915-2005)
Gilberto Mendes (1922-2016)
Willy Correia de Oliveira (1938)
Marlos Nobre (1939)
(And in) popular music:
Chiquinha Gozaga (1847-1935)
Ernesto Nazareth (1863-1934)
Tom Jobim (1927-1994)
Laurindo Almeida, who made his career in the US, (was) part of our team of guitarists/composers who transited between choro and samba (bossa nova). Just name a few: João Pernambuco (1883-1947), Dilermando Reis (1916-1977), Garoto (1915-1945), Bola Sete (1923-1987), Baden Powell (1937-2000), Guinga (1950).
Which of course makes me want to ask – who were your primary influences, as a young musician?
At first, I was very influenced by my father’s musical universe. In spite of being a communist, (he) was a creative director in advertising and a poet. At home, we listened (to) jazz, classical music and Brazilian popular music (Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, Jacob’s Mandolin, Pixinguinha, Ernesto Nazareth).
I started studying classical guitar at the age of 10 and through college, I was very influenced by my main teachers of the instrument: Celia Trettel, Paulo Porto Alegre, and Edelton Gloeden. From a young age, I wanted to be a concert guitarist. My musical roots (were) very focused on interpretation, in the study of interpretation. In the search for refinement of sound, the articulation of voices (polyphony), understanding of the musical text: phrases, musical form, etc. I knew well the most significant repertoire for the instrument. I played and listened to many composers who are better known within the guitar universe. Just to name a few: Alonso Mudarra, Fernando Sor, Francisco Tárrega, and Leo Brouwer.
In addition to composers, I was greatly influenced by the great interpreters. At that time, I remember my idols were Julian Bream, John Williams, Manuel Barrueco, Assad Brothers and Brothers Abreu, for example. I heard very (many other) instrumentalists, like Glenn Gould, Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, Nelson Freire, Martha Argerich, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich. I could say that these were my musical roots.
— Camilo Carrara and Carolyn Ogburn
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numero Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory, UNC-Asheville, and UNC School of the Arts, she recently finished her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently seeking representation for her first novel.
The first time I read Gabriel Josipovici, it was a slim, glossy brown volume sent to me by Carcanet that looked at first glance as if it might be poetry. It wasn’t, it was a short novel entitled Everything Passes, but I was struck by the amount of white space the reader is confronted with on each page, the writing being confined to a slender column of dialogue that is itself intermittent, fragmented by vertiginous silences. I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.
Why has Gabriel Josipovici never won the Man Booker Prize? Or the Goldsmith’s, or the Costa Book Award? It’s a common question among those of us who are thrilled by his work. His reception by the British critical establishment has been a rocky one over the past 45 years, which remains perplexing to me. A man who spent his career teaching literature, a published academic critic and a writer of novels, short stories and plays of striking originality, should surely tick the right boxes? Maybe there is an otherness about his writing that stems from his childhood in Egypt that lingers in his books just sufficiently to disturb the mainstream mind? Maybe he has been too far ahead of his time, and only now are we able to catch up with him?
Over the past few weeks, Gabriel and I have put this interview together over email. During this period he celebrated his 75th birthday and a strong sense of retrospection grew out of our conversation, a chance to look at the entirety of his writing life. I told him our focus would be on creativity: his creativity, the creativity in his texts, the creativity that his writing draws out of the reader. This was the result.
Victoria Best (VB): Let’s begin with The Inventory, your first novel published in 1968. I’d like to get a clearer picture in my mind of your mid-twenties self, a literary critic by now but embarking on a work of fiction. What was the inspiration for this novel?
Gabriel Josipovici (GJ): I wrote The Inventory before I wrote The World and the Book (1966, 1965-70). I had been writing fiction at least since my early teens – Monika Fludernik, when she was researching for her book on my fiction and drama, came to the house to look through my files and unearthed a short story I’d published in the Victoria College school magazine in 1954 in Cairo, when I was thirteen. It concerned a road waiting for the road-mender who comes every day to work on a stretch of it and who doesn’t come that day and will in fact never come again because he’s dead. I read it with amazement, because though it was naïve and didn’t really know what it was doing it had the voice I associate with my later writing, showing that this ‘voice’ is something one is born with, or that is the product of one’s earliest years, and, however ‘formative’ the experiences of one’s teens and later life, it remains constant. I went on writing stories, and in the year I had off between school and university I tried to write a novel but it was so bad and I believed in it so little that I burned it. But a story I wrote then was kept for ages by Encounter, the leading cultural journal of the time, who eventually wrote to say that after long consideration they’d decided not to publish it, but they’d like to see anything else I wrote, which was encouraging. Then at Oxford I wrote and published stories in University magazines, and an enterprising publisher (now an agent), Gillon Aitken, got in touch and asked to see more of my work. I was tremendously excited, of course, but it turned out he only wanted a novel. I said I didn’t have one but would naturally send it to him if and when I did. Despite this, I couldn’t seem to write anything longer than short (very short) stories.
I have often spoken about how I came to write The Inventory. It was such a breakthrough for me and emerged out of such turmoil and anxiety that – I now realise – it has acquired in my mind something of the status of a founding myth. But I’ve recently been reading through some of my early working notebooks and I can perhaps take this opportunity to round the picture out a bit, to release it (for myself at any rate) from its mythic dimensions.
After two years as a graduate student at Oxford and two as a young assistant lecturer at the University of Sussex, writing short stories no-one wanted to publish, I was getting more and more frustrated, feeling the need to write something longer than a short story, partly because I desperately wanted to have something substantial to work on for months rather than weeks at a time, and partly because I felt that if I didn’t write a novel I couldn’t really consider myself a proper writer (I had not yet read Borges or Robert Walser, who might have made me think differently), and partly of course because, as Gillon Aitken had shown me, publishers weren’t interested in short stories from unknown authors. I had even got to the point of feeling that much as I loved my work at Sussex, I would have to give it up, since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my days living the comfortable life of an academic but feeling deep down that I had betrayed the most intimate part of myself out of laziness or fear or for some other unfathomable reason. But the trouble was that, as I’ve said, much as I wanted to write something extended I found myself totally incapable of doing so. For if I worked out a plot I found it so boring to flesh out that the whole business of writing suddenly seemed meaningless, while if I didn’t have a plot the impetus petered out after a few pages.
A word had come into my head: inventory. Simply repeating the word to myself gave me gooseflesh. I realised that this was because the word seemed to pull in two totally opposed directions at once: in the direction of unfettered subjectivity, invention, and in the direction of absolute objectivity, an inventory list. I discovered that they actually derived from two different Latin words, invenire and inventarium, but that didn’t matter, there they both were, nestling inside the single English word. And suddenly I had a subject I was excited about: someone has died and the family, with the help of a solicitor, is making an inventory of the objects he (it soon became obvious to me it had to be a he) has left behind. As they do so the objects lead them into recollection or perhaps even invention of the person they had known and of their relationship to him.
But though I elaborated my basic plot I could not get the novel going. There seemed to be an insuperable gap between what I sketched out in my notebooks and any actual novel I might write.
I had a term of paid leave coming up at the end of my third year of teaching, and all through that year I pushed myself to write The Inventory (I knew my title) and all through that year I found I just could not get started. The three months I would have to myself (officially to write a critical book) grew and grew in importance. This was going to be the crunch. If I failed here I knew I would have to leave academic life for good and I had absolutely no idea what sort of job I would be able to get to keep myself and my mother – all I knew was that it would be a good deal less enjoyable and satisfying than the job I had. So, once the summer arrived, I knew there were no longer any excuses.
A beloved cat of mine had recently died and I decided, to take my mind off my anxiety, to write a children’s story about him. I had no children of my own but I did know and like very much a colleague’s three little girls, who had been very fond of my cat. So I imagined myself telling them his ‘story’. Day after day I simply sat down and wrote what I heard myself telling them. He had been a large neutered Tom, already an adult when we had got him, and when he sat out in the garden contemplating the world he looked rather like a triangle with soft edges. I called the story Mr.Isosceles the King.
The advantage of a children’s story was that I had no great expectations of myself and so no inhibitions to be overcome. I also had a clear audience in mind. And so I found myself, day after day, while on holiday in Italy, writing about Mr.Isosceles, until one day it was finished and I realised I had a book there which I had had no idea I would write and certainly no idea of the form it would take a month or two previously. So, as summer turned to autumn and autumn to winter, I had a new sense of confidence that just sitting and writing for a few hours every morning would yield something. Yet that did not allay my mounting sense of panic. I would wake up every morning drenched in sweat, my heart pounding. I knew it really was now or never. But fear, I discovered, can be a very useful thing. It can push one past all the inhibitions that have been holding one back and get one across that seemingly insurmountable barrier between notebook and novel.
VB: You’d already discovered the Modernist writers you loved and your relationship to them as a critic is clear. But what was your relationship to Modernism as a fledgling artist at this point? What did you hope to explore or elaborate in creative writing?
GB: The answer to the second question is: nothing. One writes because one has to, not to explore or elaborate anything. The answer to the first is, I suppose, that I had read Proust and Mann and Kafka, and Mann had made me understand that our modern situation is different from anything that has gone before, and fraught with difficulty; Kafka had made me understand that I was not alone in my sense of not belonging anywhere or having any tradition to call on; and Proust had given me the confidence to fail, had driven home to me the lesson that if you come up against a brick wall perhaps the way forward is to incorporate the wall and your effort to scale it into the work. I had read Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and been excited by the way they reinvented the form of the novel to suit their purposes – everything is possible, they seemed to say. But when you start to write all that falls away. You are alone with the page and your violent urges, urges, which no amount of reading will teach you how to channel. ‘Zey srew me in ze vater and I had to svim,’ as Schoenberg is reported to have said. That is why I so hate creative writing courses – they teach you how to avoid brick walls, but I think hitting them allows you to discover what you and only you want to/can/must say. Not always of course. The artistic life is full of frustrations and failures as well as breakthroughs. You are alone. No-one can help you. I think that’s what Picasso means when he says that for Veronese it was simple: you mapped out the territory, started at one corner and worked forward. But for us, he says, the first brushstroke is also the last.
So: to go back to the genesis of The Inventory. I had my first scene in my head: the solicitor arrives at the house and meets the family of the deceased. I could visualise the street and the house. But how to put that down in words? Now I was sitting at the desk determined to write the book rather than simply thinking about it, this suddenly became a crucial issue. Did I use one sentence, one paragraph or one page to describe the scene? As I scribbled I found myself rejecting one effort after another: they were not in my voice, not what I wanted. They were in all the voices of all the novels I had ever read. How then to find how I wanted to say it? And suddenly, under pressure, the breakthrough occurred. I realised I was not interested in describing the scene, what I wanted was to get the characters talking to each other, to get the thing under way. And it came to me that I could simply drop all description and find ways of conveying the scene entirely through dialogue. With that the book became a challenge and a pleasure instead of a dutiful chore. I had my lists of possessions, my inventory, and I had my characters, and that was all I needed.
Years later I read Stravinsky’s account of a similar breakthrough he had experienced as a young composer (it was when working on Petrushka I think): ‘It was as though I had suddenly been given an extra joint in my fingers,’ he said. And years after too that I began to understand why I was so resistant to description, and why dialogue on the contrary seemed exciting. It was not description as such that I felt I simply could not (my body would not) do; it was that I could not countenance the introduction of an impersonal narrator who would be able to describe the scene from a privileged position outside space and time. It might seem that a first person narrator would solve the problem, but unless he was a sort of Tristram Shandy (and I found that much as I loved that book its wonderful playfulness was not something I was drawn to emulate) there would be exactly the same problem: in life things slip past us, we are always in the midst of them, we do not stop and describe, we simply take in our environment as we go. The traditional novel pretends to be doing that but in fact the first person narrator, when there is one, stands free of such pressures and simply tells the story. The descriptions he or she provides are meant to orient the reader, to act like stage directions. But I did not want such dead wood in my book. I wanted it to be alive from start to finish, from the first word to the last. And in dialogue it could be alive, for what dialogue did was provide words where (in the fiction) the characters would be providing words. Why the words are spoken, how speaking them affects the situation and what they ‘mean’ can be left as open as in any encounter in real life.
That was how, much later, I came to explain my peculiar aversion to description and my recourse, here and later, to dialogue. At the time I merely felt that I was embarked on an exciting journey and it was up to me to keep going till I got to the end.
VB: I’m also intrigued by your use of repetition – very strong in The Inventory, but also to be found in many other of your works. What is it about repetition, do you think, that brings us closer to the real?
GJ:I discovered, as I worked, that I could do without transitions. I could simply juxtapose fragments of dialogue and build up a rhythm in that way. Repetition was part of that process. As I soon discovered, Stravinsky worked in rather the same way. Instead of the development so central to the Western classical tradition he worked with small cells which he juxtaposed with others or transformed by various processes. And his descendants, I realised, were living and working in here England – Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, then young radicals setting out on their own paths, influenced by Stravinsky as well as by Varèse and Messiaen, but also harking back to late medieval and early Renaissance ways of building large works by other means than classical development. I spent many exciting hours at the concerts of the Pierrot Players, the Fires of London and the London Sinfonietta. And in the course of that discovered Stockhausen, Berio and Ligeti, very different composers, but all rejecting the linear, developmental processes of classical music and finding their inspiration in the musics of the Middle Ages, India and the Far East. It was an exciting time.
VB: What did the experience of writing this first novel teach you?
GJ: One other thing I discovered on the way was that under pressure of the situation all sorts of unexpected things occur. A writer I had not really thought about much, Raymond Queneau, became a great source of strength as I struggled with the book. Recalling his ability to maintain wild flights of fancy and yet hold on to ‘the real world’ of the France he knew, particularly in Zazie dans le métro, gave me the confidence to let go in ways I had never been able to do in my short fiction. It was frightening but exhilarating, a roller-coaster ride with no assurance that I would land on my feet at the other end. But, somehow, I did (I learned that if you let go you often do).
VB: How was it received?
GJ: Respectfully. I think it was possible to read it as a version of the English realist novel. And those were perhaps more open times, in the late sixties. Iris Murdoch’s first novel, Under the Net, was, after all, dedicated to Queneau and this was the time when John Berger and David Drew, Europeans to their core, were writing in the back pages of the weeklies. Critics only turned against me with my fourth novel, Migrations, which was a break from the predominantly dialogue novels I had been writing till that point.
VB: As a critic, how would you define the role of the reader?
GJ: I’ve no idea. Perhaps we should drop such notions as ‘the role of the reader’. Reading, as you know, is the most natural of activities. I’ve seen children who can’t yet read grab the book from their father’s hand and sit there, imitating him, turning the pages, willing themselves to read, as it were. I was fortunate to grow up in a pre-television and pre-computer age, so that there was nothing else to do if you were on your own except kick a ball around or draw or read. There came a moment when my mother put down the book she was reading to me to go and do something and I picked it up and went on with it. She came back and I handed the book to her to continue, but she only smiled and said she was busy and perhaps I could go on on my own. And of course I did. I wanted to find out what happened next. And I remember lying by the pool in the sports club in Maadi, near to Cairo, where I grew up, and looking up at the big clock on the wall and thinking: soon it’ll be time for lunch and after that I can go on with my book. And I felt a tingling in my whole body at the thought. I think the book in question was Enid Blyton’s The Castle of Adventure – I’ve never read anything more thrilling, though I’ve had many similar moments of looking forward to a blissful evening with a book I was absorbed in.
VB: I ask this because Migrations is an exemplary novel in the singular effect it has on me as a reader. Your narratives have such extraordinary elasticity; they open up new spaces in my mind. I find myself drawn to the trope of migration itself, and the way your characters often walk and talk, or walk and think; their movement echoes the mental travel I undertake reading you. Do you have such a figure as Iser’s ‘ideal reader’ in your own mind when you are writing? What do you think your novels ask of the reader?
GJ: I think one writes the books one would like to read but that no-one has written. So as you write you write for yourself as reader. That figure is not in your mind so much as in your body. He is not ideal at all, he is this person: you as reader of books.
But the first part of your question deserves a fuller answer. Quite a few years ago now I received a letter from a reader of my work who told me she had had M.E. [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, the name previously used for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, though some argue the two illnesses are different] for many years, and for a long time no doctor would take her seriously, though she had fought hard to get her condition recognised (as of course it now is). She said reading my work had a physical effect on her, actually did what medicine and therapy could not do, that while she was reading my work she started to move better, to feel more like her old self. We corresponded and it turned out she was actually in a wheelchair, but clearly a very determined lady (in earlier life, she told me, when the disease was less virulent, she had acted and even taken a small company on a tour of Africa). She asked me if I thought she should do a PhD on my work, and tried to get in to various universities to do that, but for one reason or another it didn’t work out. I suggested to her that PhDs were probably not a good idea in the Humanities (a view I hold generally), and that if she felt driven to write about my work she should just do so. Over the course of the next years she did that and in the end had a substantial book. I read it with interest because I had always been fascinated by the kind of thing Oliver Sacks was doing and loved the idea that books could have a physically, not just emotionally or intellectually, restorative effect on the reader, not just on the writer. I had hoped that in the wake of Sacks’s popularity a publisher might be persuaded to publish her book, but alas no-one would and I remain one of its sole readers. But I cherish my copy as a witness to the effect art can have.
I don’t think there’s anything uniquely ‘restorative’ about my work; if she had happened to read someone else I’m sure that would also have done the trick. Not anyone else, but I have certainly found that the authors I warm to affect my body and not just my mind. And in essays and books like Writing and the Body I’ve tried to explore in an amateur way why that should be the case. But while neurologists have been (rightly) alert to the therapeutic effects of music, and even painting, poetry and fiction have not in the past been examined from the same perspective. This has, though, recently become a topic of research, and Terence Cave, for example, has devoted some of the money he received from his Balzan prize to setting up a team in Norway to look into it, while Paul Davis and a team at Liverpool are engaged in the same enterprise. Both of them though seem to me overly scientific and abstracting. I just wish the topic would find its Oliver Sacks.
As for Migrations and migration, that work was indeed another breakthrough for me. I had grown to feel that the dialogue form I had developed in The Inventory and which I had adopted for my next two novels, Words and The Present, was no longer satisfying. I had had a few plays publicly performed and been made welcome in the wonderful BBC Third Programme and the Radio Drama department, presided over by Martin Esslin, and full of great producers able to call on the best actors in the land. My play Playback, which I worked on with that great producer, Guy Vaesen, kicked off a season of radio plays exploring the possibilities of the form. I felt more at ease in my teaching role at Sussex now it was established that part of my time at least would be spent writing. Yet in personal terms 1972-5 were very difficult years for me. A good friend committed suicide. My beloved collie dog, who had developed epilepsy in a very violent form, grand mal rather than petit mal, with fits lasting all of 36 hours, had finally had to be put down, and I could not get out of my head the look in his eyes as he felt a fit coming upon him and with no idea, of course, as a human being would have, of what was about to engulf him. I had behaved very badly to a number of people who were very close to me. All I wanted to do was beat my head against the wall and scream. In those circumstances the lightness and humour of my early novels did not seem to be of any help. I wanted to be engaged in something that went deep and that (as I put it to myself) wound round and round and round, and in the writing of which somehow the shackles I felt were binding me tight might get released. I felt I needed to go down into my own life, but when I did so I found I had no ground to build on – I had no maternal country to dream about, not even a maternal language. I felt I was a sort of absolute migrant – someone on the move from my birth on, with no place to return to and no place to go to. How, in that condition, to find any solid base on which to stand to build something substantial? Yet as I thought about all this I began to wonder if perhaps my condition was more typical of the human condition at large than our culture (any culture?) was willing to recognise. Most people have a patria and a maternal language and the notion that these are primal is somehow unquestionable. But is it true? Or is it perhaps just another myth. Perhaps if one dug down deep enough one would find only shifting sands. I started to read quite a lot of French psychoanalysis (my close friend John Mepham was a great resource there), and in particular André Green. And I began to feel that perhaps I could find a fictional form for all this.
Two images came into my mind under the pressure of trying to find my form: a Francis Bacon image of a man vomiting into a lavatory, bent double over it, a painting I must have recently seen; and Epstein’s great sculpture of Lazarus rising, the shrouds that had been wrapped about his body starting to come loose, which I had discovered in New College chapel when I was a student down the road at St.Edmund Hall and which I often used to go and contemplate in my time at Oxford. I was also listening to the current work of Peter Maxwell Davies, those enormously slow, enormously long works audiences at the time were walking out of, like Worldes Blis and the Second Fantasia on John Taverner’s In Nomine, which developed almost imperceptibly, like their great late medieval models, from tiny cells to monumental structures. And then I heard Harrison Birtwistle’s The Triumph of Time, and I knew I had to write my book. It knocked me backwards, that long long slow ritual on strings and percussion, punctuated by the piercing, beautiful descant of the clarinet. Towards the end of the huge single movement there is a glimpse of something found, then that too is swallowed up in the funereal march. Finally, I was just starting to learn biblical Hebrew in order to read the Hebrew Bible in the original language. I was also reading the Bible in English quite intensively. I came across this phrase in the prophet Micah: ‘Arise and go, for this is not your rest.’ (Micah 2.10) I loved the sound of it in Hebrew: c’mu velochu ki lo zot ha-menuchah, and I was excited to discover that the word for rest, menuchah, is also to be found in various other places in the Bible, notably when the dove is sent out of the ark by Noah but can find no rest for her feet because the earth is still covered by water. I knew then that I had found the epigraph to my book, and, after much internal debate, decided to leave it in Hebrew to give a sense of its otherness and strangeness, and since the precise reference would allow anyone interested to look it up in an English Bible.
I had been driving up and down the road that leads from Brixton to New Cross, a road that filled me with horror every time I took it, it was so endless, so run down and desperate (it must have changed dramatically, like all of London, in the forty years since I was there), and I took that as my location. I hoped that by facing that despair and the despair of the man in Bacon’s sealed room vomiting into the lavatory, by finding a way of writing it, I might regain a modicum of balance. But I was terrified that so instinctive a procedure would lead to nothing more than a mess, so that though I wrote it straight, day after day, never looking back, once that first draft was done I subjected it to more analysis and drew more grids than I have ever done before or ever want to do again. I found that the pattern 9+1 was a recurrent one, tweaked it here and there, and decided on a title with nine letters plus the sign for the plural. And so Migrations was completed.
I had been so deeply immersed in it, and it had seen me through such a bad time, that, once my only reliable reader (relied upon to criticise as well as praise, which is essential), my mother, had read it and said she was deeply moved, I felt happy to send it to Gollancz, who had published my previous three books, including my first volume of short stories, Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays. That volume had been awarded the Somerset Maugham Prize, a wonderful accolade for a young writer, news I had received on returning from a brief holiday to try and come to terms with my friend’s suicide, but at the last minute the prize was withdrawn on a technicality (I had not had an English passport when I was born, a fact I had never tried to hide, but which it seemed was a stipulation by Maugham for the award of the prize, even though in his lifetime he had waived that requirement in a couple of instances, and which the publishers, who submitted the book, had overlooked) and Gollancz, who had slipped bright yellow wrappers announcing the award on all copies of The Present, which they were about to publish, had to hurriedly remove these. Insult was added to injury when the chair of the Society of Authors, which managed the prize, Antonia Fraser, wrote more or less accusing me of deliberate fraud and ended with the chilling words: ‘However, I am sure you will agree that the publicity you are getting more than makes up for the withdrawal of the prize.’ Be that as it may, Gollancz took one look at Migrations and turned it down. When it was eventually published it was rubbished by the critics, Susan Hill, for example, saying (was it in The Observer?) ‘If you like that sort of thing then that is the sort of thing you will like.’ It was my first encounter with the entrenched conservatism of the English media and especially of established English writers, a conservatism I now suspect (after the similar outburst of bile that greeted my recent critical book, What Ever Happened to Modernism?) is due more to anxiety than to anything else.
VB: The other figure that recurs across your works is the figure of the man alone in his room. This makes me think of both the reader and the writer, who are often in such a situation. What draws you to this figure, or perhaps better to ask, how was this figure thrust upon you?
GJ: I think I’ve answered this in relation to Migrations. As for its larger or deeper significance, all I can say is that my pulse quickens when I see paintings or listen to music or read books where the constraints are fairly tight – where a room hems in the figures, as in Vermeer or Hammershøi or some of Giacometti, or the musical resources are limited, as in Renard and Histoire du soldat. Why it should do so is a difficult question, better left to others.
VB: I wonder if we might bring in your notion of art-as-toy here; something material and real in its own right but invested with imagination and fantasy. Do you think, as both author and critic, that the ‘toy’ of art is different – invites different kinds of play – for its creator than for its consumer?
GJ: Not sure I understand this. Art is making, poiesis, and what I like about much modern art is that it acknowledges this, indeed, makes a virtue out of it. We may be nostalgic for the organic, for art growing as a tree grows, but to accept that art is made by someone at some moment is exhilarating for me. That’s why I love Tristram Shandy. Of course there are dangers. If one starts to think of it as simply artificial one is set firmly on the conceptual route, and though I am interested in Duchamp, who was a complicated and conflicted figure, I am not much interested in his followers. A key moment in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, to my mind, though no-one has mentioned it, is the confrontation I set up between Duchamp and Bacon. Both of them want nothing to do with mere description, nor do they want to go down the road of abstraction, but where Duchamp views every artistic gesture with suspicion, Bacon is prepared to trust the moment, to trust his painterly gesture. Duchamp has all the philosophical answers, but Bacon is a bit like Dr.Johnson confronting Bishop Berkeley: he kicks the stone. Duchamp will never be accused of self-indulgence or losing the plot, but my heart is with Bacon. And more than my heart. I believe that if we realise that a child lives the toy, lives with the toy, while never for a moment thinking it is anything other than a toy, then we perhaps have a better model of our relationship to art than the conceptual one. I at any rate dream of making a work that is like some complicated toy you can dismantle and put together again and that is always not just more than the sum of its parts but in a different dimension. So I love works like Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi or Birtwistle’s Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum and Steve Reich’s percussion pieces – but of course I also love works which are not like that at all, such as those of Kafka and Beckett and Stockhausen and Kurtág.
VB: Perhaps we might address the influence of Jewish elements in your works. It would be foolishly reductive to call you a ‘Jewish writer’; yet patterns of migration and exile are evocative, and many of your protagonists identify themselves as Jews (in a way that is often serious and amusing at once). How would you describe these elements in your writing?
GJ: Until well into my thirties I knew I was Jewish, knew my mother and I had survived in France during the war more by luck than anything else, yet I had no connection with things Jewish. My first books were written by someone without any contact with organised religion or with any religious tradition. So I was intrigued when, years later, a German colleague at Sussex, who was working on the way in which the Nazis took over the flats of Jews in Vienna after the Anschluss, told me she felt The Inventory was a very Jewish work: ‘It’s a book about the fragile remains of one person’, she said, ‘and the memory of that person in the objects he leaves behind and in the lives of those who survive. Surely you were obliquely writing about the war?’ I assured her that that was not the case, but of course accepted that sometimes we write more than we know.
Then, as I have said, at the time of writing Migrations I was starting to read the Hebrew Bible intensively. And what I found in the narratives there was a kind of writing that I had only come across in the work of Marguerite Duras: narratives denuded of description or psychologising, narratives which draw their power from the way dialogue and the stark description of ‘what happens’ hint at depths which evade even the speakers themselves. It was very exciting. And at the time too I became friends with a number of wonderfully thoughtful and interesting religious Jews, mainly Reform, Francis Landy, Geoff Newman, Jonathan Magonet. I found they shared one of the central attitudes I had been delighted to find at Sussex when I joined the University, a belief that one need not always have the answers, that sometimes genuine puzzlement is more fruitful than clear solutions. I admire and respect their devotion but because I never had any religious education or went to synagogue as a child I feel a little bit outside it all, but they – and they are still good friends – seem to accept me as I am. And like them too I despair of what is happening in and to Israel. The Jewishness I cherish is the one that stresses wandering as the human condition, not any sort of possession of a promised land.
So I would say that the feeling that I am Jewish is now more informed than it was, but it remains, like my awareness of Proust and Kafka, a support and a comfort rather than anything else.
VB: When I put down one of your novels, I feel that something significant and real has happened, and maybe it’s a case of Eliot’s belief that ‘mankind cannot take too much reality?’
GJ: Naturally I’m delighted you feel that way about my books. I suppose what I discovered in writing The Inventory is that I want a work to live its own life from the first word to the last. With the first word something unusual is happening, something for which there is no justification, which is a cheat, and yet which is also magical, wonder-full. I want to celebrate that, embrace it, not deny it, as do most works of fiction. I’m not interested in telling a story. I love the narratives of the Hebrew Bible and the narratives of the Border Ballads and of the Grimm tales, but most so-called classical novels turn me off – I don’t want to be filled with Stendahl’s or George Eliot’s inventions, or even Tolstoy’s, all those descriptions of clothes and rooms and the rest – I want books that leave a space for me to discover myself, like Proust’s or Kafka’s, or that get my body dancing, like those of Queneau and Muriel Spark. Lots happens in Balzac and Dickens, but I’d rather read Chandler or Wodehouse, writers who know that what they are doing is neither ‘significant’ nor ‘real’. But that’s no criticism of the classic novel (or the contemporary Goncourt or Booker contender), just that it’s not for me. As Stravinsky said of Mahler: ‘Our pulses beat at different rates.’
VB: And yet, I’m not sure I’ve read anything in which you abandon full characters. I’m thinking now particularly of the monologue novels like Moo Pak and Infinity, where you have Jack Toledano and Tancredo Pavone vividly depicted by their friends and servants, Damien Anderson and Massimo, who frame their stories. Wodehouse gives his characters easy, ridiculous, robust emotions, but what touches me about these two novels in particular is the love, friendship and loyalty, the very real emotions that drive the narrative. Friendship, suffering, the drive to create; I feel your works are very rich in emotion ‒ but entirely empty of sentiment. Would that be fair to say?
GJ: I’ve always felt that while a short story can spring out of an idea or a phrase a novel has to have characters I can empathise with. You have to have something genuinely invested in it if you are to spend a year or three of your life with a piece of fiction – there has to be something you want to explore and something you are moved by. For a long time I worked with the initial conceit of Infinity, and with the figure of the eccentric avant-garde Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, but it was only when I opened myself to the human dimension of the relationship between Pavone and Massimo that the novel finally came. On the other hand I always conceived of Moo Pak as a dialogue novel with one part of the dialogue missing. ‘Rich in emotion but empty of sentiment’ – I can’t think of a nicer description of my work or one I would be happier with.
VB: I’m also very intrigued by the ghosts of real people behind some of your novels – Giacinto Scelsi in Infinity, Pierre Bonnard in Contre-Jour, Joseph Cornell in Hotel Andromeda. I don’t for one second think this is a biographical urge, so what do these real figures offer you in terms of inspiration or structure or… maybe something else entirely?
GJ: I too have been intrigued by that question ‒ ever since I worked on The Air We Breathe, behind which lies the figure of Claude Monet, and which was sparked off by my looking at a book of photographs of the aged Monet and his wife – sitting on the beach in Dieppe, pottering about the garden in Giverny, etc. – and then found myself following it up with a book loosely based on the life and work of Pierre Bonnard, Contre-Jour. Enough, I said to myself, or people will start thinking of you as a novelist who only writes oblique biographies of painters. And then I found myself writing a book at the centre of which was Marcel Duchamp, The Big Glass, and fifteen years later a book in which Joseph Cornell figured prominently, Hotel Andromeda. It’s true that in between I wrote a number of novels – Now, Only Joking, After, Making Mistakes – which do not have an artist at the centre, but even so, what was going on? All I can say is that something in the life of this or that artist does more than intrigue me, it grabs me to such an extent that I cannot rest till I have had a go at discovering why, and doing so in the only way I know, by writing a piece of fiction. With Bonnard it was hearing a talk about why he painted his wife Marthe so frequently lying stretched out in the bath (because, said the speaker, she was a compulsive washer); with Duchamp it was reading about how, when he learned that the work on which he had spent so much time and energy, The Large Glass, had been damaged in transit to an exhibition, the glass panels cracked beyond repair, his response was: ‘Wonderful!’ With Scelsi it was reading the crazy remarks he made to interviewers and some of which were printed in the sleeve-notes to his CDs (‘I was born in Mesopotamia 2800 years ago’; ‘Other composers like to hold up their profiles to the photographers and to show off their noses; I have a finer nose, a perfect Roman nose, much finer than any of them but I have never let myself be photographed.’). With Cornell it was seeing those photos of him in old age in his garden or his study in the house in Utopia Parkway he had lived in most of his life, looking like a figure already passed over to the other side. But in every case I had to love the art or at least to find it highly interesting. I could not spend a year or more of my life with someone with whom I was not in some sort of sympathy.
And I think too that the combination of work that I found fascinating and a life that intrigued me and which I could identify with acted a bit like the double focus of that word ‘inventory’ with my first novel – it gave me the rudiments of a plot, and a form. Already in some very early stories I had found myself trying to find literary equivalents of paintings by Picasso, Vermeer, Dix, and others, and taking as the ‘content’ of the story what the painting represented: two large women running on a beach, a woman at the harpsichord, a mirrored room in Brussels during World War I. So it’s clearly more than a passing fad.
VB: I am particularly interested in the depiction of creativity that comes out of your work. There seems to me to be one constant feature uniting the artists in your pages and that is their absolute dedication to art. What makes this something you want to write about?
But I am also curious about the way that these characters suffer ‒ or make those around them suffer ‒ for creativity. Do you think that creativity is necessarily costly; that it always demands a measure of sanity or love or peace of mind to be paid?
GJ: That, I suspect, is the deeper reason for my fascination with these artists. Artists are the saints of our day, no? Surely, they argue by their choices, life is in the end about something other than money and status, life is a quest, a puzzle and a gift. On the other hand there is something ridiculous about this stance. Something quixotic. For already in the early seventeenth century Cervantes sensed that the dedicated life was an absurdity, whether that life was passed in dedication to God or to knight errantry or to the writing of books. I think that is one reason why I write novels and not critical books about Bonnard, Duchamp etc. Because fiction can show up the absurdity, even the self-delusion (Infinity), or the costs to others (Contre-Jour) of the obsessive artistic life, as well as its wonder and glory. That’s the beauty of art, of fiction, that it can accept and reveal complexity, even contradiction, and leave you simply pondering how life is.
VB: On that note of costly creativity, maybe we can return to you in the 80s and 90s. You’d been a young man longing to create works of literary fiction and here you are doing so, an established author. Had the experience been as you expected it would be? How had it changed you (if indeed it had)?
GJ: I’m not sure about ‘established’. After the débacle of the Somerset Maugham Prize and Migrations (1977) I had been labeled an ‘experimental’ writer once and for all and routinely abused and dismissed in reviews or else ignored altogether. With each new book of course I thought: This time they’ll get it, this time they’re bound to see what I’m after, but it didn’t happen. Publishers would take one book, swear they were in it for the long haul, then drop me when no-one bought the book, until I finally found a home in Michael Schmidt’s then expanding Carcanet fiction list. Carcanet have stood by me for the past thirty plus years, though during that time their fiction list has had to shrink and almost disappear (I think I am the last remnant of a once-vibrant list that included Clarice Lispector, Natalia Ginsberg, Leonardo Sciascia and Christine Brooke-Rose). When Contre-Jour was taken by Gallimard I thought: at last I will find a public to appreciate me. But Gallimard pushed it as a novel just about Bonnard and it fell flat and they lost interest. It wasn’t till the late nineties that a Swiss publisher, Gerd Haffmans Verlag, began to take my work and to publish it in Germany that I felt I had found a public. It wasn’t just that reviewers were kinder to the work, it was that the reviews were intellectually on a different level to the English ones and engaged with the work (Haffmans Verlag brought out Now, Contre–Jour and Only Joking when that book had not even found an English publisher) in ways inconceivable to English editors and reviewers. When I gave readings from my work in Germany I found people responding to it on its own terms, instead of more or less asking me to justify myself, as I felt on the rare occasions I had done readings or interviews in England. But then Haffmans went bankrupt, a seemingly common fate with any press that took me on. Finally in the new century dedicated small presses in France (Quidam) and Spain (Raig Verde, Complices) began to bring out my books in those countries, and first Zweitausendeins and then Suhrkamp and Jung & Jung in Germany. But it’s really only in the last few years (with the rise of the internet and blogs like yours and Steve Mitchelmore’s) that I’ve ceased to feel I’m there on sufferance and the sooner I disappear the happier the literary establishment will be.
Of course all that has its good as well as its bad side. I remember my Oxford friend, the composer Gordon Crosse, saying to me all those years ago: ‘For the artist there are two dangers, success and failure.’ Wise words. I’ve seen what success has done even to writers I admired (Golding and Pinter for example, even Claude Simon) and felt in a way glad it had never come my way. Failure – it depends how you define it. When all public responses are not just negative but dismissive it’s sometimes hard to keep going. We are not Buddhists, we need some sense that what we are doing is more than self-indulgence. But of course in the end we go on writing because we have to/want to. (David Plante once said to me: ‘Remember, Gabriel, no-one asked you to do this.’ More wise words.) I have now accepted that I will always only appeal to a very small section of readers, anyway in this country, but probably everywhere, but I have also come to feel in the last few years (not in the eighties and nineties) that there is a growing body of people for whom my writing really matters, and that is heart-warming and encourages me to keep going.
VB: You have written the most moving tribute to your mother, the translator Sacha Rabinovitch, in A Life, the memoir of your relationship. What do you think she gave you as an artist?
GJ: It’s so difficult to say. She gave me life, of course, and then she saved us both when we were stranded in France during the war. When I was fifteen she once again showed courage and determination when we left Egypt for good in 1956, just before the Suez crisis. She left her sister, her only remaining family apart from me, her beloved dogs and all her possessions to face a totally unknown future. She had no idea if she would be allowed into England, where I was going to finish my schooling, and, if not, what would happen to her. So my being in England and becoming an English-language writer I also owe to her forethought and determination.
All that might have been a heavy burden for me to bear, but she was also the most generous and the most loving of people, and gave me all her love without (I think) spoiling me – a difficult balance. But the real miracle was that as I became an adult (in fact from the moment I came back from Oxford, where I had been on my own for three years, for the first time in my life) we found we had a great many shared interests ‒ and even tastes – in books, in music, in art, animals, in walking – and became firm friends. Which doesn’t mean of course that we did not have quarrels, sometimes terrible ones, when people are that close it’s probably inevitable. But it was wonderful to have a friend in her to whom I knew I could always turn. When I began to write she was naturally the first person to whom I showed my work. And she was invariably encouraging though quite ready to make critical comments when she thought they were justified. Her response to The Inventory was typical. When a draft of that book was finally finished I left it with her to read and went off to London for the day. When I entered the house on my return my heart was beating. I felt that this was the moment of truth. I had no idea if what I had done was very good, quite good, or just plain rubbish. Her first words were: ‘It’s wonderful.’ And as the sense of relief flooded through my body she added: ‘I think you’ll have to work on the ending, though.’
So I suppose in answer to your question I have to say: she gave me everything. The deep confidence of knowing that, however out of step I was with the prevalent culture of the time, someone else thought the work good, someone I could trust. I would not have written what I have had it not been for her, and one of the hardest things about her death was losing my best and most reliable critic.
VB: Let’s talk about Goldberg: Variations, which strikes me as your most widely-reviewed novel to date. I also find it quite different to everything else you’ve written without being able to put my finger on why that should be so. It is such a unique piece of fiction – how did it come into being?
GJ: I think it was in the early nineties that I came across that anecdote about Bach’s writing of the Goldberg Variations. It derives from Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, but I can’t remember if I had been reading Forkel or another book on Bach or perhaps it was just a passing mention of the story in something on quite a different topic. (Scholars, it is worth saying, now cast doubt on every aspect of the anecdote.) It seems that Count Keyserlingk, a Leipzig nobleman, had insomnia, and he asked his court musician, the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to play to him at nights in the hope that that might send him to sleep. Goldberg in turn asked Bach to write him a suitable piece, and that was how one of the greatest works of music ever written came into being. I thought it would be fun, as a sort of homage to Bach, to see what happened when I transposed the story to Britain and turned Bach from a composer to a writer. And I conceived the idea of an English nobleman in the late eighteenth century developing a debilitating insomnia and calling up his not too distant neighbour, the renowned writer of German-Jewish descent, Samuel Goldberg, to come and read to him, and then to insist that he read something he had written that day. It was an amusing jeux-d’esprit, and I got it written without too much difficulty. As I was finishing it I heard Judith Weir, a composer I knew slightly, talking on the radio about the importance to her and to so many modern composers, of Bach. I decided to send her the story, something I regretted doing for the next few years, because she wrote back quite soon to say she had much enjoyed reading it on a train journey to Manchester and when would I have the other twenty-nine variations to show her?
Of course once the seed has been sown in your mind it’s impossible to dislodge. I loved the Variations and every time I heard them I was deeply moved by the fact that when the Aria with which it starts returns, unchanged, at the end, we hear it completely differently, because of the long road we have travelled. I also loved the idea of a piece that would be made up of a number of discrete yet interlinked parts and that would yet be more than the sum of its parts. But I had set my initial ‘variation’ in England in the late eighteenth century, and while it was possible (for me) to write a piece of historical fiction that covered twenty pages I was not sure I could – or would want to – keep it up over a whole novel. I am not a historical novelist and am not interested in historical novels. Certainly not in twentieth century ones. Nevertheless, I thought I ought to give it a go. After all, I greatly admired William Golding’s The Spire, set in the Middle Ages, admired it particularly for the fact that Golding made the setting feel completely authentic yet hardly went out of his way to ‘set’ his novel in a bygone time. Perhaps I could learn from him.
Over the next few years I struggled with the project, periodically growing sick of it and turning to other things, yet always coming back to it. I couldn’t get it off the ground and I couldn’t quite let it go. I cursed Judith Weir. But in the end I had to let it go. I had written half a dozen ‘variations’ and roughed out the end, but it seemed terribly false and arch to me and I dropped it. I turned to contemporary subjects with relief and wrote Moo Pak and then Now, both set in present-day London. But after my mother’s death and the emotional turmoil that followed, I found myself spending more and more time in Berlin where a friend had a flat and a bicycle to lend me, and perhaps it was the distance and the unfamiliarity of my surroundings, but I found myself turning to my abandoned novel again. As I cycled along the canal or river towpath in Berlin, stopping off at beer houses with shady gardens, I pondered the problems of my book and found myself starting to work at it again. I realised that perhaps what I should do was punch a window into the present in the fabric of the building I had erected, so to speak, and let the later ‘variations’ enter the modern world. And then other things began to fall into place. I had decided from the start that I would not follow Bach’s variations slavishly, writing a very fast or a heavily ornamented variation when he did, etc. Yet there were a few landmarks in the landscape of his mighty work that I felt I would like to incorporate into my feeble effort, in particular the moving slow and lyrical variations to be found, one towards the end of the first half and one halfway through the second, and also the rumbustious knockabout variation with which he concludes. I had also, like all listeners to the work, been struck by the fact that Bach does not, after the Aria, begin with any sort of overture, but keeps that back till variation 16, the start of the second half. I decided that for that grand piece ‘in the French style’, I would transpose another Bach anecdote to late eighteenth century England. The story goes that by the end of his life Bach’s fame and his ability to improvise complex music had spread to the court in Potsdam, and it was there that the King invited him and gave him a theme which he asked him to improvise on. The result was another astonishing masterpiece, The Musical Offering. I decided that my naturalised English writer would also compose a number of variations on a theme given him at court by George III.
I had had a postcard of an extraordinary late work by Paul Klee on my desk in Lewes for some time. Called Wander-Artist, which means something like travelling showman and performer, it depicts, in stark black, a crudely drawn figure striding from left to right across a red background, itself hemmed in by a rough black frame, and waving as he goes. The whole is painted to look more like a poster than an artwork, and I loved it and was moved by it, for reasons I could not begin to fathom. But as I worked with renewed energy on my homage to Bach that figure suddenly intruded into the fiction and even began to speak. That was when I knew that finally the thing was coming together and one day I would have a book.
When it was done and I had my thirty variations I racked my brains to try and decide how to compose the Aria that in Bach starts and finishes the work. And it gradually dawned on me that that may be the difference between our age and the age of Bach, that his can have an opening and closing Aria, which anchors the piece and set the parameters, while ours can only have variations. In other words, there was a good and profound reason why I could not find it in me to write my Aria. And with that thought came the further thought that for this book the Aria would have to be the Klee Wander-Artist, which I would ask the publisher to put on the front and back covers, as though the only Aria for us to countenance today would have to be a collage onto mine of someone else’s work, and would be a work that itself cast doubt on the notion of the artist, suggesting as it does, like other works of Klee, such as Ghost of a Genius, that today the word can only be used mockingly, artist reduced to artiste, genius to ghost.
With that my work on the book came to an end. But my feeling, after working at it for far longer than for any of my other novels, was mainly one of relief, not of triumph. And of course it was the first novel of mine that I could not show to my mother. As to whether it’s all that different from my other works, I’m not sure. In some ways of course it is, and I’ve tried to explain why. But the central figure of the Wander-Artist is another of my walkers, isn’t he? His roots I think probably go back to Migrations. But it’s really not for me to say.
VB: Goldberg was received wonderfully well in France. Reading the reviews, I feel they really ‘got’ you, if you know what I mean. As you mentioned with the German reading public, they responded so deeply to what you are doing in your fiction. I wonder why your writing works so well with a European sensibility that seems lacking in the Anglo-Saxon temperament of the British?
GJ: But it took twelve years to appear in translation. Haffmans Verlag had commissioned a translation but the firm went bankrupt before they could publish it, and so far no other foreign publisher has dared take it on, apart from Quidam, my intrepid and wonderful French publisher, who brought it out last year. I did finally feel then that I had found my public, something, as I said earlier, that I had hoped for with Contre-Jour but which never materialised at the time.
As to why my books get more intelligently reviewed in Germany and France, there must surely be many reasons. There is now a clear divide between the cultural life in England and America on the one hand, and on the continent on the other. You go into a French bookshop and the main table is spread out with books on philosophy; in an English bookshop, with books on food or gardening, or with biographies of footballers. The Net Book Agreement holds in France and hardly anyone uses Amazon, preferring always to buy through their local bookshop. And there are still several of these, independent bookshops, in every quarter of Paris, each with its devoted band of readers. Bernard Hoepffner, my brilliant French translator, and I read together from Goldberg in a small Paris bookshop last year. We occupied the only two seats they could get into the small space, but it was packed with people who had already read the book, listened attentively, and asked good questions, standing for over two hours. And that’s not just true of Paris, but of most French towns. With Bernard we took the train to Tours and read in a bookshop there (the tickets and our hotel paid for by the bookshop owner). Same story, except that the place was big enough for seats to be brought in. Drinks were served afterwards. When we did the same in Brussels, the owner said he couldn’t stay to have dinner with us. He had made his money, it turned out, in business, and then at the age of 30 retired and started the bookshop. At ten that night he was taking part in a 160-kilometre bicycle event. So he was living the life he wanted to live. In England I suspect someone in his position would have opened a wine-bar. So it’s a whole cultural thing. Proust, Blanchot, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Mann, Heidegger, Celan, are living presences for most educated readers in France and Germany. In England? One just has to ask the question to see the problem.
It’s a shame, though, because I feel a dose of English irony and even scepticism would sometimes be useful when French or German intellectuals ascend into the stratosphere, and I love the deflationary irony of the best of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. But it can so easily become a cheap and sneering cynicism, which is really a kind of schoolboy panic in the face of what they feel is beyond them. In their disciples only the cynicism is left.
VB: I’d like to mention a couple of your novellas, now, beginning with Everything Passes, the first of your books I read and still one of my favourites. The pliancy of this narrative astonishes me every time. Can we talk about white spaces? They’re a feature of several of your works and give them a particular, striking effect. What does that blank space bring to your narrative, do you think?
GJ: Not sure I can answer your questions, but I’ll have a go. First of all, ‘novellas’. I don’t know when the term was invented, but it is clearly helpful when the expected length for a novel was between 500 and 1000 pages. It helps us distinguish Bartleby from Moby Dick and The Death of Ivan Ilych from War and Peace. But I’m not sure it’s helpful with the modern writers I’m interested in – Woolf, Spark, Duras, Bernhard, Appelfeld – very few of whom write long books. Proust wrote one enormous work of fiction, basically, but the many short novels of Woolf or Bernhard can also be seen as parts of a single project. Whether my books should be seen like that or not it’s not for me to say – they certainly feel like that from the inside.
I’m glad you responded to Everything Passes – I had been thinking about it for a decade or two before I wrote it and a great many different elements went into it – hearing Schoenberg’s late String Trio, that extraordinary expressionist work which, he said, attempted to describe what he felt like when he technically died and had to be resuscitated with an injection; a photo of Francis Ponge looking out of a dirty window with a broken pane I once saw in a newspaper and could never forget; much else. But you are asking me about the way it is written. One of my earliest pieces is a long ‘story’ called ‘Distances’. I think the epigraph is from Rilke: ‘those feelable distances’. I am drawn to the idea of the distance between people, and even between ourselves and ourselves, as a space that is vibrant with unspoken feeling. The works of art that touch me are those where that is in play – in Vermeer’s painting, in Velazquez’ Las Meninas, in Hammershøi’s silent rooms – works which have an enigmatic quality, a sense of waiting for something to happen, where the waiting is more important than the happening. I love the idea of a work of fiction which can catch that. And as I discovered with The Inventory, you really don’t have to spell out the transitions, and you can use repetition to convey rhythm. I love the border ballads for that reason, and the late medieval ballades and many of Dunbar’s poems. As with the Aria in the Goldberg Variations, these refrains and repetitions are never exactly the same when they return, precisely because now they have been heard before. And I suppose I’ve never got over my first hearing of those long slow works of Maxwell Davis and Birtwistle which seem quite static but where something is slowly stirring and by the end you find you have travelled a long long way, even if that way is not linear.
Does that start to answer it?
VB: Also in Everything Passes, your protagonist, Felix, discusses Rabelais and the moment in European culture when Rabelais understands that he has ‘gained the world and lost [his] audience’. I wondered what you felt about that in relation to contemporary audiences. Do you think we are undergoing another seismic shift in terms of the reader and his or her capacity for attention and understanding?
GJ: You know, I wanted Felix to sound pompous and just gave him something pompous to say. Schoenberg, who is vaguely behind Felix, lost his first wife to a much younger friend. I suspect she could not bear his ponderous certainties, his propensity to lecture one at the slightest opportunity. But of course I stand by the gist of his comments. I do think Rabelais and the whole tradition of which he is the head – Cervantes, Sterne – wrote out of just such a sense of print as both liberating and crippling. But whether this is being repeated today – are you referring to the internet etc? – I wouldn’t know. I still read books and trust that anyone who bothers to read me will do the same. And, interestingly, Patrick Wildgust, the director of the Laurence Sterne Trust who runs Shandy Hall, tells me he is sure the renewed interest of young people in Sterne has something to do with the internet. People blame the internet, he says, for sapping readers’ ability to stick with a linear narrative for several hundreds of pages, but by the same token Sterne, who is all digression and no linearity, is the ideal author for the internet age. Of course there are few works with the originality and zest of Tristram Shandy, and I suspect one needs to know how to commune with a book in silence to respond to Woolf or Duras or Bernhard.
VB: After is an extraordinary novella (published in a Carcanet edition with Making Mistakes). There’s an exchange in it that thrills me: ‘genuine puzzlement is much more productive than false clarity’, your protagonist says, to which comes the reply: ‘I wonder if your theory is not a little dangerous when applied to life and not to the problems of the mind.’ What gave you the idea for this story with its profound exploration of memory and knowledge?
GJ: I’m so glad you like After – and was so moved by your review of it when it came out all those years ago. It was another of those books which just refused to come. I eventually forced my way through to the end in a rather tense period of six months I spent in Paris, teaching once a week at the American University. I had had a bad two or three years in my personal life, compounded by the fact that my German publisher had gone bust and Carcanet were uncertain whether they would be able to go on publishing fiction at all. Writing it was a kind of lifeline for me. I felt I just had to write it to stay sane, and in fact it’s a pretty mad novel. I don’t know what I think of it. In a way it’s a reprise of The Echo-Chamber. At times I feel deeply embarrassed by it and ashamed of it, at others very proud. I can’t say any more than that.
VB: We haven’t really talked about your short stories. Would you like to say a few words about them?
GJ: There are writers like Bellow for whom short stories are really shards dropped from the novels or ideas for novels that never quite developed. And there are writers like Beckett and Robbe-Grillet who used the short story form to test out their style and vision in their early years. There are also writers like Borges or Ambrose Bierce whose fictional output consists of nothing but short stories. And finally there are those, like Hawthorne or Malamud, who have written both short stories and novels and recognised that these are rather different forms, each with its strengths and its weaknesses. I feel I belong to this group. I’ve always loved short stories, enjoy the fact that you can control every word in them in ways you can in a poem but not a novel, and some of my happiest moments have come when I realise I have finally nailed one. This happened with one of my earliest, ‘Mobius the Stripper’, with a small group of stories I wrote in the eighties, ‘Second Person Looking Out’, ‘He’, ‘That Which is Hidden is That Which is Shown…’, ‘Steps’ and ‘Volume IV, pp.167-69’, and with a couple of more recent ones, ‘He Contemplates a Photo in a Newspaper’ and ‘Heart’s Wings’. In fact, I’m not sure, if I were asked which of my books I feel happiest to have written, if I would not plump for ‘Heart’s Wings’ and Other Stories, a volume of recent and selected earlier short stories which Carcanet published in 2010, with a fine cover designed by my son.
VB: You used to write stage and radio plays. Why did you stop?
GJ:After my first two novels had been published a theatre was built in the new University where I had gone to teach, at Sussex, and the students asked me to write several plays for them. The challenge was very exciting. I wrote a monologue for Nick Woodeson, who later rose to become a distinguished actor, one of those Pinter regularly turned to, and two plays for a group of students. Then I worked very intensely on a collaboration with the Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe, who had come to the University as a visiting professor while he was trying to get started on an opera commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Our collaboration came to nothing, but as a result of our discussions and my immersion in things Australian I wrote a play, Dreams of Mrs Fraser, which was premiered at the Royal Court Upstairs. Then for a while I wrote for the little theatres which were starting to proliferate in Britain in the early seventies. Unfortunately they soon started to concentrate on more overtly political kinds of drama, and I found that my plays fell between two stools: too ‘avant-garde’ for the conventional stages but not political enough for the little theatres. Later, and for several years, I teamed up with a Brighton-based company, and wrote a number of lunchtime pieces for them, but they eventually disbanded and commissions dried up. I find that while I will always write fiction, which I do on my own in my own time, and which, thank God, I have always eventually found publishers for, with the theatre you have to have a specific commission, to know what kind of company and space you are writing for, even though you always hope that if the work is good enough it will find other homes elsewhere after a first outing.
I did have one very exciting commission at the time. The newly-formed Actors’ Company, which included Ian McKellen and Caroline Blakiston, invited me to write a half-hour play for five actors, with minimal props as they were short of funds, to be performed at lunchtime in Edinburgh where they were doing a season of Shakespeare and Chekhov. In half an hour you can’t really waste time having people go in and out, so this forced me into attempting something I had only ever half-thought about: a play of five intertwining monologues performed by actors seated facing the audience. I had always felt that my trouble with most post-Renaissance art is that you are meant to face it head on, while it stands still, so to speak, and stares back at you. Yet in life things are constantly slipping past us, just caught out of the corner of the eye, or only half-heard. I liked the idea of an audience trying to hold all five monologues in mind at the same time but of course being unable to do so, and gradually letting go of some in order to make sense of one or at most two. The rehearsals were very exciting, my brilliant and virtuoso cast rising to the challenge I’d set them. The trouble was there was no room for hesitation, and if you lost your place there was no way of finding it again. And invariably one or other of the cast would lose their way. In the end the director, Edward Petherbridge, had to decide whether to keep going with rehearsals to the end and hope for the best or cut his losses and set up lecterns in front of each so that they could read the words. And this is what he did. The result I felt (and Howard Hobson in The Sunday Times, agreed with me) was unnerving and powerful, but it was not nearly as powerful as it had been in rehearsal, where the actors’ anxiety and fear of not getting to the end without coming unstuck, became part of the tension of the whole and where their very vulnerability in front of the audience made for very powerful theatre. The play has been done once or twice since, but always with lecterns, and I long to see it done without. It would have to be a young and fearless company to do it though.
Flow, as I called it, and Comedy, the second of the plays I wrote for the Sussex students, and which almost got done professionally in a boxing ring, which would have been perfect (the backers pulled out at the last moment) – these are the plays I’d most like to see revived in really bold productions.
Though work in the theatre dried up by the end of the seventies, I was starting to write quite a lot for radio. I had always loved the idea of radio drama and in the radio drama team at the BBC, I found I had people who believed in me and were prepared to commission work with absolutely no strings attached. The result was a series of very happy collaborations, from Playback in 1973 to the mid-eighties. When Guy Vaesen retired (though he returned to produce my 90 minute monologue, Vergil Dying, written for Paul Scofield and performed by him on radio) I teamed up with another fine producer, John Theocharis and together we worked on a number of productions, two of which were chosen by the BBC as entries for the Italia Prize, AG, a mad and highly irreverent reworking of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and Mr.Vee, an attempt to find an audial equivalent for the play of mirrors in Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Many of them were also translated into German, for Germany has a rich tradition of the Hörspiel. But by the nineties the BBC had begun to change, The Third Programme had become Radio 3, a mainly musical station, and had lost its glittering array of distinguished producers, while in Germany too the effects of reunification were felt even in the rarefied world of the Hörspiel, and there was a severe reduction in their transmission of foreign plays. I greatly miss those intense two or three days of working with dedicated actors and producers of the highest calibre, but it looks as if the days of really innovative radio drama are gone for good.
VB: I have concentrated on your fiction in this interview, because I feel that that is where you’ve done your most important work. But there is a question anyone who has read your criticism as well as your fiction will want to have answered, and that is what you consider the relation between the two to be. You’ve pointed out again and again in your answers to my previous questions that fiction certainly does not spring for you from any desire to make critical or theoretical points. But where then do you see your criticism, which is fairly substantial, with books on subjects as diverse as the Bible, the sense of touch, the notion of trust, and Modernism, fitting into your oeuvre as a whole?
GJ: I said at the start, talking of the genesis of The Inventory, that I thought I would have to give up teaching because living with books, talking about books all the time, made me unduly self-conscious and made it impossible for me to write my own fiction. But I wrote that novel and stayed on teaching at Sussex for 35 years, the last fifteen or so part-time, teaching from October to March and having April to September to myself. This actually was ideal. I did something I enjoyed doing and that I felt was worthwhile, so that even if I got nowhere with my writing I could still feel, at the end of the year, that I had made a contribution of some kind to the country that had after all taken me in and given me free university education with a job at the end of it. On the other hand come April I was not exhausted mentally and physically, as I had been by the end of June when I taught full time. In fact I had a free conscience and I felt I had earned my time to myself, so that those months of April and May were utterly blissful and a time of great creative upsurge. Since I’ve retired completely I don’t get that lift and if the work is not going well I have nothing to take its place, while I rarely feel I’ve earned any sort of break.
But teaching literature and writing criticism are not the same thing at all. I have always felt that writers make the best critics, and love the critical writings of Proust, Woolf, Auden and Mann, and the comments on books and writers one finds in the letters of Lawrence and Eliot and Beckett. Writing about the books and authors you love seems a natural extension of writing your own fiction or poetry, a little less fraught of course, since the threat of failure is not so imminent – I will always be able to finish an essay on a writer I love or a topic that interests me, but that is certainly not true of a story or a novel. In fallow periods Pinter turned to writing film scripts. They are often very good, and clearly by him, but obviously not of the same importance as his major plays. Alas, no-one asks me to write film scripts, and that is why in fallow periods I have found myself accepting reviewing and other non-fiction commissions or even following up an idea and writing a whole non-fiction book, as with Touch.
The book on the Bible [The Book of God] was a little different. It’s more bound up both with my personal life and with my teaching. As I think I said earlier, I was not brought up religiously in any way, but on the other hand I always had a strong sense of being Jewish. Nevertheless when as an adolescent I had my religious crisis it was a Christian religious crisis. After all, I had been reading Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, not Buber and Rosenzweig. Did I believe in Jesus Christ? Could I commit my life to such a set of beliefs? Like most adolescent religious crises, this one passed. I went on teaching Donne and Herbert, Dante and Dostoyevsky, but in my thirties I began to think again about my Jewish roots. It was really a cultural thing. At Oxford and then at Sussex I had felt that the friends I made shared a European outlook with me, but at some point it became clear to me that there was a part of me, the part that had its roots in my family and in Egypt, which was not catered for by the idea of Europe. Perhaps that point came when I received that ill-fated Somerset Maugham Prize and decided to use it (it was a travelling grant, but when the prize was taken away from me the University, in the form of its then Vice-Chancellor, Asa Briggs, generously insisted I take a term of paid leave, so the effect was the same) to return to Egypt with my mother to see my aunt and any old friends who might still be there. I had begun to teach a course on The Bible and English Literature with a remarkable Anglican colleague and friend, Stephen Medcalf. At Oxford we had often been told: ‘You can’t understand English literature before the twentieth century if you don’t know your Bible’, but no-one did anything about it. It seemed to us that Sussex, always open to new courses, would be the ideal place to try to fill that gap. It was a fascinating course, both in itself and for the variety of students it attracted – from those whose parents, reacting to their own parents, had brought them up in ignorance of the Bible and who now felt the need to find out about it as we at Oxford had felt the need to find out about Kafka or Kierkegaard, to those steeped in this or that version of a Bible-based religion and found it difficult to treat the text as the narrative it after all primarily is.
But I soon realised that to teach the course I really had to learn biblical Hebrew. So Stephen and I and several of our colleagues sat at the feet of a new recruit to Religious Studies, an Anglican priest called Michael Wadsworth, who was also a semiticist and had just completed a thesis under Geza Vermes at Oxford, and learned the rudiments of biblical Hebrew. We also found ourselves gathering informally to discuss books such as Frank Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy, which had just been published, and which excitingly married biblical criticism with modern theory, and to revisit the first chapter of Erich Auerbach’s extraordinary Mimesis, written in Istanbul during the war and one of the founding texts of the School of European Studies. And gradually I found myself lecturing and writing on the Bible and on why (as it seemed to us) both the theological and the archaeological approaches to it, the two predominant scholarly approaches, left so much, perhaps even the essence of that strange great book untouched. And we found ourselves part of a movement that took in America, Britain and Israel, a movement with roots in the writings of Buber and of Jewish scholars like Umberto Cassuto, as well as Auerbach, but which had taken wing with the publication of Robert Alter’s Aspects of Biblical Narrative. We were a tiny minority in the sea of biblical scholarship, but nevertheless, a vocal and significant one. It is the only time I have understood what it means to feel part of an international scholarly community, and it was a very nice feeling.
I remember a walk over the Downs with my composer friend Jonathan Harvey in which I said to him: ‘I feel I have a book on the Bible there somewhere, but I’m not sure I want to devote the time to it it’s clearly going to need when I have so much fiction I want to write as well.’ And he said: ‘No, you’ve talked about it enough, and it sounds important to me, I really think you should do it. It will feed into your fiction, don’t worry.’ Over the next few years, as I tried to balance the teaching, writing fiction and thinking and then writing about it, I often cursed the moment when I had fallen under the spell of the Hebrew Bible, but in the end the book got done and, looking back, I’m glad I did it. Whether Jonathan was right about its feeding my fiction, I’ve no idea.
VB: Looking over your collected works and the experience I’ve had reading them, I’m reminded of Barthes and his comment that some of his best reading occurs with the book face down on his lap, staring into the middle distance. There is something so potent that happens when your writing comes into contact with my imagination. There’s a concept you may have heard of – the ‘unthought known’ – created by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas. It refers to the immense store of knowledge that we own unwittingly, having never put it into words because we became aware of it in a wordless fashion. Bollas says: ‘There is in each of us a fundamental split between what we think we know and what we know but may never be able to think.’ Some of it will never be articulated and so, he says it’s important to ‘form a relationship to the mysterious unavailablity of much of our knowledge.’ And somehow, this is how I feel reading you. You take me towards the unthought places without ever speaking them yourself. It’s the spirit of the Between, if you like, who has his own chapter in Goldberg. Does that make any sense to you?
GJ: Yes, it makes a lot of sense. It’s what I look for in my writing, what I want to read and can’t find in the writing of others. I’ve never read Bollas, but what he says makes perfect sense to me. I wouldn’t even call it a ‘fundamental split’ – I think rather that our bodies know more than we do and that the task of art is to find forms and words that will allow the body to speak.
VB: Finally, Hotel Andromeda, which I read for the first time a few weeks ago. Your most recent novel and, for me, one of your finest. How did you come to bring together Joseph Cornell’s artworks and the trouble in Chechnya?
GJ: I began to think of writing a novel about Joseph Cornell back in the eighties. I think it may have been the show of his work at the Whitechapel in 1981 that set me thinking, but I’d also seen some photos of him in old age taken by Hans Namuth. In his back garden. In his ‘study’. He was living alone by then in the house in the wonderfully named Utopia Parkway he had lived in all his adult life with his domineering mother and his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy. He looks haunted in those photographs, on the threshold between life and death. I longed to do something with those photographs.
The problem for me was that there seemed to be no ‘centre’, to either the works or the man in the photos. And from what I could find out about him he seemed both utterly focussed, knowing exactly what he wanted and yet strangely ego-less. I’m drawn to such figures. Kafka, obviously, but Vermeer too, and Bonnard – the opposite of such dynamic artists as Lawrence, Rembrandt, Picasso. And it seems to be a minor but powerful American type: Melville’s Bartleby, Emily Dickinson, Hopper – to set against the Whitmans and Mailers and Pollocks. Fascinating, haunting figures, but in their emptiness, their stillness, their lack of forward thrust, going against the very nature of the novel. Anyway, I dropped the idea and went on to other things.
However, Cornell went on haunting me and towards the end of the nineties a biography finally appeared, Deborah Solomons’ Utopia Parkway. It’s a brilliant example of the genre, sensitive to both the life and the art, neither obtrusive nor evasive. Cornell comes through as an even more curious figure than I’d imagined, neither quite an outsider artist like Henry Darger, the Chicago janitor in whose apartment, after his death, was found an enormous stack of vast paintings telling the epic story of a group of little girls with penises pursued by hunters, nor quite a professional artist like Duchamp and de Kooning, both of whom he knew. The catalogue for the recent wonderful Royal Academy exhibition of his work is silent on all this, or rather, makes a conscious effort to show us Cornell as a mainstream artist. I can see why – you don’t want to present him as a freak. The Royal Academy is a serious institution with a deservedly high reputation. Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that Joseph Cornell was decidedly odd. He was infatuated with one young starlet or ballerina after another – and not just starlets. Susan Sontag was one of his brief passions, and young waitresses in their uniforms too cast their spell upon him. He would make them boxes which he would send them, befriending them and even occasionally helping them financially, but he remained a bachelor and probably a virgin all his life, living out his days in the house in Utopia Parkway with his mother and his sick brother Robert. He found it difficult to communicate with people yet had a huge number of acquaintances and admirers; he made avant-garde films and works of art that have lasted better than those of his more famous contemporaries, such as Pavel Tchelitchew, as the RA exhibition testifies, yet he never put pen to paper or held a camera. And so on. My feeling is, that like Glenn Gould, say, he was at the Asperger’s end of the spectrum, odder than fellow-artists but not totally cut off from society.
And it’s not just the biography that shows these contradictions: the art does as well. Many of the boxes and collages are rather twee, with their dolls and ballerinas and the evident longing for a world of lost innocence. This is an aspect of nineteenth century sensibility I am not overfond of, and I rejoice at its deflation by the Modernists. On the other hand there are plenty of works that are to my mind among the greatest of the twentieth century: the Hotel series; the aviaries; the beautiful abstract homage to Emily Dickinson, his films, which you can see on YouTube – and I would urge everyone to have a look at the beautiful, original and haunting three-minute film, Angel.
Solomons’ biography renewed my interest in Cornell and made me keener than ever to write a novel about him. But it also laid out starkly the inner problems of such an undertaking. I couldn’t write it in the first person because there was no ‘first person’ there. A film like Angel is so haunting because it is so still, so directionless, not just lacking human presence but making us question human anguish and striving by its very form and content – how then could I have a first person at the heart of my novel? And it’s the same with the third person – Le Rouge et le Noir and The Adventures of Augie March present us with the same thing: a young man, freed from ancestry and tradition, out to make his way in the world. This is what the novel was created to depict, and it does it supremely well. But I am drawn to its opposite – the small un-American novel, if you like, the opposite of the Great American Novel. And Cornell is my perfect subject – except that for that very reason it seemed impossible to write about him – as if to do so was a violation of his very being. Yet I’m a novelist because narrative is what I love and can do – even if it is unorthodox narrative.
Anyhow, though I tried to write my Cornell book I just couldn’t. There is an anecdote in Solomons about Cornell, who, late in life, when he was living alone in the house in Utopia Parkway, loved to entertain his young and beautiful female friends to tea. But he was exceedingly mean. Once, having invited three young artists and starlets to tea, he produced one tea bag, which he passed from cup to cup, talking all the while.
These conversations of his were like those of Glenn Gould, long rambling mumbles, barely comprehensible. He would, like Gould, call friends up on the phone and talk to them for hours. They would grunt every now and then, go off to prepare a meal or answer the door, and when they returned to the phone he was still talking. And for a while I toyed with the idea of writing a novel about just such an occasion, with my hero taking his friends round his house, meandering off into the past, barely aware of their presence. But it didn’t work. Cornell is not the stuff of Bernhard-like novels. His oddity and his genius does not express itself in words.
So the project stalled again. But this time it wouldn’t let me go. Once again Proust came to my rescue: if you reach an impasse try incorporating the impasse into the novel. I had been toying with another idea, a novel with a form I am very fond of, what I call the X form, where two people in firmly established positions at opposite ends of the spectrum, slowly change sides in the course of the book, each in some sense becoming the other. I had tried it with two couples in In a Hotel Garden and again in Making Mistakes, and I had tried it out with just two people in a little story called ‘Brothers’, and I had been thinking of a larger canvas, a novel about two sisters, one in some sedentary job in bourgeois London, the other a nurse or perhaps running an orphanage in some war-torn country like Chechnya. And it came to me that the sedentary London-based sister could be an art historian writing, or trying to write, about Joseph Cornell. And then might the house she lived in itself become a sort of Cornell box, filled with other voices, other lives?
And so the book got written.
VB: What lies ahead for you? May we hope for a new novel?
GJ: I hope so too. I can’t conceive of a life without writing and just hope I can go on till I drop.
—Gabriel Josipovici & Victoria Best
Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books
- Josipovici’s mother was born in Egypt and living in France at the time the Second World War began. She and her son narrowly survived, as Jews, the Nazi persecution. She managed to return to Egypt in 1945.↵
Six years old in Phoenix, Arizona, and I wanted to sing country. I’d walk to Squaw Peak Elementary by myself; my two sisters too young for school. There was a house on the corner with a desert yard, a looming saguaro instead of a tree. A low fence kept kids from kicking up the sand. In that sand was something shiny, a glinting by the base of the cactus tree. I’d eye it every day, and every day I wanted it more. Often, walking to school, singing under my breath, I’d practice my twang, the one I thought necessary for a singer. This aspirational twang is forever wed in memory to the shiny, forbidden object buried in the sand.
We are meant to sing. Words want to dive and swoop in the air. A considered tune wants words. I have wanted to sing for decades now, and I’ve sung to myself, quietly, or in closed spaces.
Too, I am drawn to things that need no metaphor. In looking for an invisible thing, my voice, I take singing lessons.
Your voice box sits atop your windpipe, which sits atop your bellowing lungs. Exhale through this apparatus while flexing your vocal cords, and you will make sound. Your head is a maze of boney caves. The notes you make will echo in the passageways and hollows of your body. You can pinpoint the thrum of each pitch. Middle C rings down at the collarbone, the C above by the eyes, High C springs from the top of your head.
The voice is an instrument made of bone, modulated by flesh. It is wind squeezed through a hole. A bone flute.
In Mozart’s Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night sings a famously difficult, unreasonably high aria. She must hit the F more than two octaves up from middle C. Repeatedly. She must do so with trills – and the appearance of ease. She must launch her voice into the stratosphere.
A recording of Edda Moser singing this aria is in included in the collection of sounds from Earth on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. This is what the inhabitants of some future, faraway world will hear. This is what they will know of us.
But since you are here, and now, listen also to Diana Damrau’s rendition. Watch her mouth. The shape of the mouth shapes the sound.
It’s all about holes. Holes through which the world enters, and out of which come babies, words, blood, shit, song.
And it’s about bones, the structure for our living mess.
Or. A bone in the hole. The bone thrust in a hole at the start of a soul. The baby grows amidst a confusion of metaphors and hypotheses and then, when that song has ended, the clatter of bones lowered into a hole.
People expire when they take their last breath.
Inspiration feels like talking to god, being filled with something beyond yourself.
Spirare, to breathe.
I can’t breathe, I have thought before, in panicked states.
When I lived in the Canadian Rockies, work would sometimes have me driving at night through blizzards. Being tailgated by trucks. I was terrified. The only way I kept calm was by singing to myself. There is the song, with its own calmative force, and also the deep breathing it requires.
Singing lessons are mostly lessons in breathing.
When I was a girl, my father would bring home discarded x-rays from the hospital. My two sisters and I would cut out the bones and tape together skeletons. You would think I’d know what the inside of a body looks like; I thought the diaphragm was a vague thing shaped like a birth control device, wedged into the rib cage. It is, instead, as I learn in a singing lesson, a huge, thin muscle stretched across the bottom of the rib cage like goat skin across a drum. When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm expands downward. I imagine it like a balloon, and our lungs like balloons-within-balloons.
A diaphragmatic breath is the singer’s breath. You make yourself a loose and empty thing, a vessel. Air rushes in. The space between your gut and your sex expands. You are pregnant with song.
Sometimes I’ve wondered if aliens would see much difference between humans and nematodes, a basic worm type. We are both bilaterally symmetrical animals, sharing what is called a tube-within-a-tube body plan. We are tubes with holes at the beginning and at the end. Tubes for air and food. When we die, we are worm-food. Alive, worms are bird food.
Songbirds can produce two notes at once. Some can imitate chainsaws, barking dogs, and crying babies. Swooping through the air, they echo the world around them.
Why are angels never described as bird people? They sing and they fly.
My ex-husband believed that some singers were angels and that’s why they were always crashing in planes. It seems to me that angels should stay aloft.
Plague doctors were another form of bird people. Convinced that pleasant aroma would prevent the inhalation of miasma, the foul breath blamed for plague, the men wore bird masks, and would burn sweet herbs in the beak.
The ancient Greeks feared bird women. They knew they were helpless when they heard the sirens sing. Sappho was described as a nightingale with misshapen wings.
Hypothesis: Angel minus person does not equal bird.
When you sing, you can’t hear yourself accurately, the echo chamber in your head distorts your sound. You must learn to feel where the sounds are in your body, how to perceive the sympathetic vibrations. You must imagine that you are opening spaces you didn’t know were there, spaces you thought of as secret. You are a tube of air, a tube with holes that, when closed or opened, makes notes. A wind instrument.
A warm-up exercise has me singing a scale of “kee” sounds. Keys, I think. I might unlock something. The hard k sound requires breathing into the lower belly and is a voiceless velar plosive. Explosive.
My husband, in his sixties, compares peri-menopausal women to volcanoes. Sappho lived on a volcanic island. I am in my forties, and just learning to sing.
The voice resonates in the chest, in the head, and somewhere in between. There are two breaks in the female voice, one between the chest and the middle voice, and another between the middle and the head voice. A break is where the voice can crack. A break is also known as a passaggio. How you navigate these passages affects the song. I can’t help but think of periods, monthly punctuation. Starting to bleed and stopping are the two passages of the female body. How do you navigate these passages? I was a hot mess of a teen.
Anybody could be in the high school choir, but jazz choir was for the elite. I could read music, sing in tune, and follow directions. I auditioned. The choirmaster rejected me on grounds that I shouldn’t be allowed to have everything I wanted, citing my good grades as proof that I was spoiled. I was a diligent, quiet girl; he was a soft-bodied man in beige slacks the same color as his skin. He wanted to hang out with the cool kids; jazz choir swelled with cheerleaders. I started throwing up. I am not saying that the choirmaster, that unwitting prick, caused my bulimia, but I am saying that if you have a song inside you, it will find its way out, it will erupt. It may no longer be a song, and it may not be beautiful.
The song will find its way out, a distortion. Or you will silence it, an erasure. For a while, as a teen, I went quiet, I stopped eating. I thought spirit and bone were all that mattered. That flesh, my womanly flesh, was dangerous.
Ancient Greeks thought the womb wandered around the body, causing a variety of female problems, another way of saying that being female was the problem. Foul odors repelled the womb; pleasant aromas attracted it. And so, a suffering woman would have garlic stuffed into her mouth, sweet herbs up her crotch. The womb could thus be held fast by smells. The wandering womb was described as an animal inside an animal.
The voice is an instrument inside the body, a living thing of and within us. An animal inside an animal.
A wild boar lays waste to a kingdom; two brothers set out to kill it. The cowardly brother goes to a bar and gets drunk. The brave brother is given a magic spear, and with it, kills the boar. Jealous, Drunk kills Brave. Drunk claims the prize, the king’s daughter. One of Brave’s bones is found and made into a flute. The bone sings out the story of what really happened. The king hears the song, hears the truth, and orders Drunk’s death. The princess is freed from the boor, and the brave hero, though dead, triumphs, thanks to his singing bone.
The Queen of the Night gives Mozart’s hero a magic flute, somewhat smaller than a spear, but perhaps size doesn’t matter. She wants him to save her daughter. The flute in Mozart’s opera can change men’s hearts, that’s why it’s magic. A skin flute, a meat flute. The hero triumphs, thanks to his melodious pecker.
I could sing about bones.
I could sing about the feeling of quickening desire, of a cock crowing, of a bone bonering against my back as I lie between sheets, embraced.
I would sing of domesticity and the marriage bed.
The echo chamber in our head distorts our sound, we can’t hear our own songs truly. We need each other to be heard.
When I was going through divorce, I listened to Keith Jarrett moaning above his piano notes and Glenn Gould above his. These raw and moaning men.
When I was going through divorce, I made a film about a singer. The singer loses her marriage, her faith and her voice, in no particular order. She can’t tell the difference between falling and flight, her voice cracks on the high notes. My favorite poem at the time was an ancient lament with many translations. The last line: what was never one is easily split: our song together.
I went to Newfoundland. I’d had dreams about humpbacks, the singing whales, and the high cliffs diving into sharp water. My heart was broken in several directions. I am a bad guitar player, but I needed to sing, and so I did, shut away in a little rented room. The song was another presence, it made me feel less alone. One day, my landlady and I went out in a skiff, we were looking for whales. Two soon found us, they swam under and beside us for over an hour. I was over the moon. Blissed out, as in my singing whale dreams. One of the pair lifted its monstrous tail in dripping goodbye as he dove down and away. My landlady said, You’re looking for a whale in the shape of a man. I think what I was looking for was a song together.
Sappho was described as a whorish woman, love-crazy, who sang about her own licentiousness. Looking for a song together, I fell in love like crazy, always with writers. I can see myself in scraps of their poems, their stories. A muse’s mirror.
I have settled on an island now, in sight of a volcano. I am married again and we have a boy. I write myself. And, I am learning to sing.
Hypothesis: Volcanoes are to love as sex is to singing.
It is discombobulating and also thrilling to learn that I might be a soprano. In high school choir, I was shoved to the back row of altos, and have thought of myself as alto ever since. My would-be soprano is faltering, fledging. Aspirational. Paper airplane rather than rocket.
To jump, one must push against the ground, against gravity. The deeper the knees bend, the harder you push, the higher you go. Same deal with voice. To sing the high notes, I press down, inside my self, down through my cunt. Giving birth. At the same time, the high notes feel like flying. I feel them in my head, above my eyes.
The Greeks made much of the mouth/cunt connection, had the same word for them. When I search the words “vagina” and “mouth” in an effort to learn more about Classical theories of same, Urban Dictionary tells me that “vagina mouth” refers to somebody who’s always talking about vaginas, or a person always down on their knees, open-mouthed and ready.
Classical virgins were open, ready for penetration. When a parthenos finally had sex, she was forever transformed by the man’s sperm and spirit. All her words were an echo of the masculine presence now inside her, her songs were his.
The Oracle of Delphi, a virgin priestess open to Apollo, would sit astride a crack in the earth, a crack from which hallucinogenic fumes, the breath of god, spewed. She breathed these vapors in through her cunnus, her cunning, her cunt, and out from her mouth came the word of god. Some say she raved, some say she spoke in poetic meter. Maybe she sang her advice?
The epithet for Echo, a nymph who was nothing but voice, was the girl with no door on her mouth. She never shut up, and in her conjugal relations with Pan, she had sex with all of nature. No door, indeed. And no words of her own, poor thing. Poor thing.
How to love, and yet be essence as well as vessel, meaning as well as mouth?
Sappho stayed open, she stayed her self, she sang her own words. It didn’t matter whom she fucked.
The ancient Greeks feared sirens.
In college, my roommates and I had our gimlet eyes fixed upon a lacrosse player, a frat boy with Greek letters on his jacket. There was a rumor that he’d done it in the bushes outside our dorm, and ever after, my roommates and I would tease each other with an ironic slam, well, you do it in the bushes with X. We were virgins; the thought of sex was terrifying and hilarious. One day, one of us did do it with X. According to the post-coital report, he emitted high-pitched squeaks as he came.
The sounds we make in sex are often honest, spontaneous, and I have always loved these sounds almost as much as I have loved the sound of an unencumbered laugh.
The ancient Greeks, those old vagina-mouths, also had a word for a female scream of intense pleasure or pain. Ololyga is described as disorderly and/or divine.
I once heard a story of a woman who’d lost her voice in the range where she would scream. As I remember it, she’d been raped, had screamed, and hadn’t been heard. She wasn’t saved. Ever after, her screams were silent.
An old man steals the Queen of the Night’s daughter. The queen finds her girl, and gives her a knife. The Queen, in her famously high aria, commands her daughter to stab the old lech to death. The name of this fancy, super-femme song is Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart.
The Queen of the Night gives the hero a magic flute, but she gives her daughter a knife.
My singing teacher teaches screaming. She also works with bel canto. I practice breathing. I practice shaping my mouth. I practice, practice, practice. What we want, after all, is ease. Beauty. The wedding of order to chaos, light to dark, reason to rhyme. The voice made true, the word made flesh.
We are nothing if not memory. We are nothing if not together. We can’t hear our own songs truly.
Singing is a sympathetic resonance of souls across time, across space. We echo each other, with variations.
The world needs more songbirds, more sirens, more humpback whales. We are meant to sing.
In the beginning, there were three muses. Memory, Practice, and Song.
Then, six more were added, I don’t know why. Nine total.
Sappho was called the Tenth Muse. The Mortal Muse. Her music clings to time-worn fragments like spirit to the bone.
What happens when a muse serves not as inspiration for someone else, but sings her own song?
Hypothesis: She cannot be erased.
NOTES & SOURCES:
There are, of course, many interpretations of The Magic Flute / Die Zauberflöte. It is a complex work. Mozart was a Freemason. It is not original to note that the flute is a penis, a creative force; some readings posit the flute as the penis of Osiris, the Egyptian god who looms weirdly large in Masonic culture and in the opera.
Wulf and Eadwacer is an Old English poem, the only copy of which was found in the Exeter Book. It, like the Queen of the Night’s aria, is famously difficult. The narrator is presumed a woman; Wulf and Eadwacer might be husbands, lovers, sons, one might even be a dog. You can find a million interpretations. The woman is on an island, and she is speaking for herself. The line quoted above, about our song together, is hers.
Etymologies: Ancient Greeks used stoma to refer to the mouth that eats and speaks and also for the mouth of the uterus. Cunnus is another Latin word for vulva, and has a few possible sources, including Indo-European roots meaning woman, cover, and wedge. Cunning comes from the knowing root that gave us ken and canny. Cunt has tangled and uncertain etymologies, but seems unrelated to the Latin. Germanic in origin, cunt likely comes from a root meaning hollow space.
I construe marriage bed loosely. I like the sound of it, and it means, to me, a bed in which two people who truly love each other fuck, sleep, talk, and hold each other. I am glad to live in a place where gay marriage is legal.
Laughter is the daughter of uncontained sound: Iambe, offspring of chatty Echo and wild Pan, was the Greek Goddess of Jokes. We get the prosodic term iambic from her, too.
Lyric poetry was meant to be accompanied by a lyre. These words were lyrics, words for a song. Sappho was a lyric poet; she sang.
In A Mourning Chorus, women make beautiful birdlike sounds and songs in an elegy for disappearing songbirds.
In the video of the Art Gallery of Ontario performance, Fides Krucker and other bird women keen for vanishing species.
Fides Krucker is a Canadian singer, vocal composer, teacher and writer. She is also a friend and my singing teacher. This essay owes much to long conversations we have had about voice. Her teaching incorporates extended voice techniques, bel canto, and her own philosophies and techniques developed over years of personal experience. In particular, Fides talks about the dropped breath, about the pelvic floor, about effortlessness, about the female body and emotions in a way that is unique to her pedagogy. The Girl with No Door on her Mouth was an opera Fides commissioned, produced and sang, and was based on Anne Carson’s work. She performs regularly in Canada and Europe. She is part of the Mermaid Collective, which will be staging the opera Dive, based on the Lampedusa story The Professor and the Siren, in summer 2015. The recording of Dive will be released in the spring of 2015. Fides is working on a book about her pedagogy, as well as a memoir. You can read Documentary Singing, her blog.
Some years ago, I took an intensive and formative voice workshop with Richard Armstrong, who was a student of, and continues work influenced by, Roy Hart. After this workshop, Richard introduced me to Fides, and the three of us worked on Butterfly, a three part project:
Butterfly, a documentary;
Opening Night, a music video;
and From an Opera Without Divorce, a fictitious opera,
all on the subject of voice. I also studied briefly with Susan Carr; I first really understood what the diaphragm was in a lesson with her, and her exercise using the “kee” sound are referenced above.
She has produced an extensive app featuring videos and exercises for all levels of students, as well as screaming techniques. Sue coached Seahawks fans on how to scream loudly and safely as they cheered their way to a world record crowd roar, recorded at 137.6 decibels.
My favorite male singer these days was, I thought, a woman. I am glad for such surprises. He’s no boy soprano, no castrato. He inhabits a female voice, an adopted voice, like an animal within an animal. In his song Bang Bang, Asaf Avidan blurs the line.
If you are magnetic, the world is yours, is an example of a maxim from Vocal Wisdom, Giovanni Battista Lamperti, transcribed by William Earl Brown, Taplinger Publishing Company. Mostly, though, it’s a primer on breathing, diction, and other bel canto techniques.
Confronting the Classics, Mary Beard, W. W. Norton & Co.
Glass, Irony, and God (1992) Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound.”
Greek Virginity, Giulia Sissa, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press.
The fairytale of The Singing Bone was formalized by the Brothers Grimm.
Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, translated and with a forward by Willis Barnstone, Shambala Press.
Julie Trimingham is a filmmaker and writer. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. Way Elsewhere, a collection of fictional essays, is forthcoming from Lettered Streets Press. She loves writing for Numéro Cinq. Stories she has told at The Moth Story Slam are posted at www.julietrimingham.com.
(Photo: Theo Cote)
How does one introduce Lydia Davis? By listing her accolades (which include the 2013 Man Booker International Prize)? Her acclaimed story collections, like Samuel Johnson is Indignant and Varieties of Disturbance? Her exquisite translations of Proust and Flaubert?
Since breaking through with Break it Down in 1986, Lydia Davis has stood at the forefront of American literature, constantly crafting fiction that both provokes reaction and mines the depths of the English language. In my review of her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, I write, “The book is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author’s overall style—short narratives, with the occasional longer piece—while simultaneously expanding her vision.” In addition, the translation work by Davis has both reintroduced classics (Madame Bovary) and ushered lesser known works into the libraries of avid readers.
It was a pleasure to connect with Ms. Davis for the following interview. We began speaking in February via email, and conducted this conversation over a series of electronic messages that lasted through the end of March.
— Benjamin Woodard
Benjamin Woodard (BW): The 14 “Flaubert stories” in Can’t and Won’t feel right at home with your other narratives, often echoing ideas and themes from other stories. Were you drawn to these while translating Madame Bovary, or did they come earlier?
Lydia Davis (LD): Actually, I stumbled upon them as I was reading through the letters that Flaubert wrote during the time he was working on Madame Bovary. The letters were interesting for many different reasons, but the nicest reward was to come upon a little self-contained story that he was telling his correspondent, about something that had happened to him recently. I took whatever liberties I needed to—these were not meant to be “straight” translations—and shaped them into little stories.
BW: How did you shape the narratives?
LD: Sometimes, I barely touched them. Usually, though, I would make little changes—combine two sentences or cut some material out of one. In the first story, about the cook, I added the phrase “and yet it has been five years since he left the throne”—because a contemporary American reader would not have the same information that Flaubert’s correspondent did as he wrote the letter. I tried to write this, and other additions, in Flaubert’s style and tone. In another story, I added some information about one of the characters, since he was otherwise unidentified. Yet another story, the one called “After You Left,” actually combines material from two letters. On his way home in the carriage, Flaubert remembers riding home on another occasion in a sleigh—in my story. In fact, he recounted that sleigh ride in another letter.
BW: Does translation work ever affect your style in English?
LD: Usually, for whatever reason, the style of the work I’m translating does not creep into my own—although I noticed when I was translating Proust that my emails became longer and more digressive. But I certainly like the little Dutch stories I’m translating at the moment, by A.L. Snijders, and I’m sure I will begin writing stories modeled on those, if I haven’t already.
BW: The “dream pieces” story cycle is another type of translation altogether. What prompted this cycle, and how did you decide to interpret these surreal tangents?
LD: What prompted these was a combination or confluence of two things—often the case. A French Surrealist and ethnographer, Michel Leiris, had published a book that collected his dreams over forty years. What interested me about this book was not just the dreams but that he included waking experiences that were like dreams. I had this book in an English translation by Richard Sieburth. It sat on my shelf for a long time. But then one day I had a waking experience that was so like a dream that it inspired me to see what I could do with narrating dreams so that they were dynamic and vivid, and narrating waking experiences so that they were believable as dreams.
BW: Does your approach differ when writing an extremely short piece like “Ph.D.” compared to “The Seals,” one of the collection’s longest stories?
LD: Oh, yes. Many of the shortest stories occur to me already almost complete—though not the one you mention, which was actually shortened from a longer “dream” piece. Often, all that these very short pieces need is the right title, and I take some time over finding that. But a long, fully developed narrative, like “The Seals,” requires going into a sort of trance, allowing the inner voice to begin speaking, and letting one paragraph suggest the next. There is a lot of material in a long story that was not planned in advance but that occurred during the writing. Then, there is the problem of structure, which I don’t really have in a very short story. Will one part balance another part in a good way? Is the conclusion thoughtful and strong? And in the case of that story, I had to pay attention to how often the narrator’s present situation, sitting on a train, came back into the story, so that it wasn’t lost. Much more complicated, altogether, than the shortest stories. But on the other hand, the shortest stories have that challenge of being substantial enough, in their few words, to carry full weight as finished pieces of writing.
BW: How does the idea of travel fit into your storytelling? Your characters often find themselves on physical journeys. For example, “The Seals” takes place on a train, alternating between present and past, in a way reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.
LD: The simple fact is that I was traveling when I began many of these stories, since I find that sitting on a train or in an airplane is actually very conducive to letting my thoughts roam around freely in a relaxed sort of way, which sometimes produces a thought that leads to a story. At home, more stationary, I may be translating, or writing something non-fictional, like an essay. So the travel stories arise from incorporating what is going on at that moment. I like traveling—I like the feeling of suspension that one has at those times. You are between home and your destination, you are surrounded by strangers, you have a fellowship or bond with a group of strangers, for better or worse. It is very interesting. And often I am also in a foreign place, which means a foreign culture. I enjoy the contrast between that and my domestic, rural, home existence.
BW: Thematically, Can’t and Won’t plays quite a bit with the idea of capturing different forms of history, be it dreams or memories or subconscious realizations. Was this a deliberate effort on your part?
LD: Well, your insight is interesting—I rarely stand back and look at the pieces as a group. It is true that I’m very interested in history—as I never was in school. But as for a deliberate effort, no, I do not think ahead of time about themes. Stories occur as they want to occur—I try to impose as little as possible on them. They simply reflect whatever is on my mind at that time. Only sometimes, as in the case of the Flaubert stories or the dream stories, or the letters of complaint—of which there are five in the book—I see that there is a form I like and want to explore, to see what it might yield.
BW: Finally, what are you reading now? What writing inspires you?
LD: Interesting question. Actually, two quite different questions, possibly. I do keep reading the small stories of the Dutch writer Snijders—since he sends them out by email. And they inspire me to translate him. At the same time, I’m reading a biography of Glenn Gould, because he continues to fascinate me as pianist and person, and I want to know more about him. But that book would not inspire me to any kind of writing. W.G. Sebald’s novels inspire me—I’d like to do what he does; so do Thomas Bernhard’s, though he is so surpassingly negative about everything—but funny. There is a wonderful, probably not very well known thin book by the Canadian Elizabeth Smart with one of the best titles I know: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It is a story of obsessive love, and it is most eccentrically written. I know that title will seep into me and come out somewhere, sometime, and maybe the structure and style of book itself will, too.
— Lydia Davis & Benjamin Woodard
Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections. Her collection Varieties of Disturbance: Stories was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award of Merit Medal, and was named a Chevalier of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and her translations of modern writers, including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and Marcel Proust. Lydia Davis is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in decomP magazinE, Cleaver Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews, interviews, and essays have been featured in Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed Books, Numéro Cinq, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Bygone Bureau, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter @woodardwriter.
Julie Bruck won the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry last year for her third collection MONKEY RANCH. She is from Montreal but lives in San Francisco. Her other two books (all three published by Brick Books) are THE END OF TRAVEL (1999) and THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS (1993). Herewith NC offers a wonderful interview Julie recently gave NC’s Contributing Editor Ann Ireland plus a trove of poems. By mysterious Fate or Synchronicity or sheer Coincidence (still astonishing) it just so happens that Julie Bruck will be reading in Fredericton (where dg is the Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick, in case you’ve forgotten) Saturday and Sunday at Ross Leckie’s famous Poetry Weekend. According to the latest reading schedule (there is a cast of dozens it seems; never so many poets in once place—difficult to organize; a veritable extravaganza of poets with a huge party at Sharon McCartney‘s house where DG will partake of the Barking Squirrel), Julie Bruck will be reading at Gallery 78 Saturday at 2pm and again at 8pm on Sunday at Memorial Hall.
Ann Ireland: Your poems slow the reader down so that we pay attention to moments that might fly by, unobserved. In your first book the poem CLOSURE feels like a statement of poetic intent. Thoughts on this?
Who hasn’t had days when the door
stayed ajar; the important business call
in which you meant to sound brisk
but goodbye came out bye-bye?
Or when you talked over someone
saying what they’ve tried for years
to say; hung up in the middle
of I love you, or got hung up on.
A plane takes off and a small child
turns from the cloud-streaked
window, asks, what happened?,
and sobs for the rest of the trip.
Poof!–gone are her grandfather’s
delicate nose-hairs, the sunlit world
with its parking-lot demarcations.
There’s just this terrible shaking
between the past and future.
You want to know when it stops.
There’s a poem I haven’t thought about in a long time! When it was written, circa 1990, I wouldn’t have pegged the poem for an ars poetica, but you’re definitely on to something. I’m a person who mourns for what has yet to be lost, for whom the concept of “closure” is laughable. I refuse to come to terms with how provisional and temporary life is. Is that a form of arrested development? I suspect so. Meanwhile, looking slowly and clearly at even the smallest things is an attempt to wrest a snippet of meaning from the passing moment, or to restore the dignity or beauty—even the embarrassment—inherent in what can be so ephemeral.
If I revised that poem today, I’d change “delicate” to “wiry,” a more concise word for how an old man’s nose hair looks to a child. I’m starting to understand why poets like Stanley Kunitz and Donald Justice kept changing and reissuing their early poems in their late years. I’d also cross-examine those semi-colons. But please, stop me before I start. What a slippery slope.
AI:You write of place, of growing up in Montreal. How did it affect your writing to move to San Francisco?
JB: I have a long, intimate connection to Montreal, the kind you don’t get twice in one lifetime. It took almost a decade before I felt like I lived in San Francisco, as seductive as this place can be. When I was new to the Bay Area, I once complained to (the poet) Heather McHugh about homesickness, and she said something to the effect of, you never leave where you come from, you simply carry it with you. At the time, this advice sounded more like one of Stuart Smalley’s Daily Affirmations on Saturday Night Live, but Heather, who also has roots in Canada, is the smartest person I know. Sure enough, as both cities took up residence in my writing, I came to feel both more grounded in California and more connected to where I’m from. That was an enormous relief, though I should have had more faith: so many writers whose work I admire retain a creative foot– if not both feet–in their place of origin. James Thurber said, “The clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus.” My chimes will always be the CBC’s “long dash, followed by a period of silence,” though I’m beginning to take comfort in the emergency siren that sounds here every Tuesday at noon, with its warbling reminder that “this is just a test.”
AI: How might you describe your upbringing, the household you grew up in?
JB: Idyllic and fraught. My dad, who died just days before his 98th birthday this March, was the president of a textile company when there still was a large domestic textile industry in Canada, so our family was quite affluent. I grew up in a big Georgian greystone in Westmount, and my two older brothers and I went to a private school a few blocks away. By the time I was nine, my brothers had left for colleges in the U.S., and their absence had a big effect on me, though I didn’t know it at the time. On one hand, I gained a great deal of solitude in the big house (a state I still crave today), and on the other, I became an only child, wedged between my parents, absorbing the dissonance from two well-meaning people who never should have married. My father was, despite his liberal politics and fascination with Thomas Jefferson, very traditional in his family expectations, while my mother wasn’t one for the bell jar. While my dad would come home wrung out from dealing with budding labor unions, my mother was organizing anti-poverty or clothing drives on behalf of the children of these very same people. So, while I enjoyed all the pleasures that my father’s work brought us, I also received a clear message from my mother, which was that our largesse was built on someone else’s labor. Something was always rotten in the state of Denmark, and I began to look at things from a slight remove, a stance I still have. These particular family matters are things I’d just begun to revisit in Monkey Ranch, and I don’t think I’ve quite exhausted them, as my long answer to your question suggests.
AI: When did you start reading poetry? Were you read poetry as a child? Which poets first excited you?
JB: My mother read Edward Lear and other children’s verse out loud when I was little, and my father liked to quote Ogden Nash, but aside from a voracious appetite for British children’s mysteries with ponies in them, I never became an enthusiastic young reader. My parents loved to read, and this may have been a reaction, I don’t know. I do know that I wanted to be outside, preferably with real animals instead of imaginary ones. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I started to read actively. Those were tough years, and I was looking for meaning and excitement wherever I could find it. I read lots of Canadian women poets, especially Atwood. I had much reading ahead of me. If I’d known how much, I might have fled for the hills.
AI: You began training as a visual artist. What caused the change in direction? Do you still make visual art or is your highly visual poetry taking care of that?
JB: After a few years of photography, using both 35mm and large format cameras, I was frustrated with needing so much equipment to make such quiet, simple things. I’d just completed my freshman year at The San Francisco Art Institute, and the little kitchen in my apartment doubled as a darkroom. Since I was using traditional archival methods, one day it dawned on me that I was probably washing my fruits and vegetables in selenium toner or gold chloride. To make a long story shorter, the simplicity of a pen and a notebook looked good. And of course, poetry is another way of framing what one sees, one that uses revision instead of dodging and burning to fill in the shadows and set the brightness, the contrast, the tensions in the work. There are plenty of kinships between the two mediums.
This week, I stumbled across a familiar bright orange box at the local thrift shop, the same rare, soft Agfa portrait paper I used to use. Someone had ripped open the light-proof black wrapping inside the box–to inspect the contents, I guess–exposing and ruining every sheet. I stood there for a few minutes, feeling very sad and very analog.
I still have my Olympus OM-1, but it needs repair, which is both hard to find and expensive. Eventually, I’ll have it fixed, even if I take the film to Walgreen’s, and have the images digitized.
AI: How is the writing scene in Montreal different from SF?
JB: Montreal’s Anglophone writing scene is very small and intimate, while the Bay Area’s writing “communities” are multiple and widely scattered. In a way, they mirror the topography here, which has scores of neighborhoods folded into these dramatic hills. If you chose to, you could attend a literary event every night in San Francisco, and never touch down, but it would be hard to get any work done.
AI: Did you know any writers when you moved to SF?
JB: My spouse, Lewis Buzbee, is a writer and a third-generation Californian, so I got to know local writers through him. I’ve also made writerly friends on my own here, but much of my writing life remains tied to Canada, and I still exchange work with friends in Montreal. I was 40 when I picked up stakes, and these old affections transcend geography. They’re akin to what Leonard Cohen lovingly refers to as his “neurotic affiliations” in Montreal. They run deep.
AI: Advantages to having a foot in Canada and the USA. Any disadvantages?
JB: Quite honestly, I never plan much according to practical advantages and disadvantages, for better and for worse. I’ve just followed my dumb heart so far. Except for parenthood, which changes everything, my daily life here isn’t so different from what it was in Montreal. Like most writers, I struggle to carve time from work and other responsibilities to get a few quiet hours to work .
I sometimes wonder whether living in San Francisco isn’t more like being in Oz than living in the U.S. It’s such a left-leaning, progressive place, it’s easy to lose sight of the rest of the country from here. Meanwhile, growing up as an Anglophone in Quebec might have been the perfect training for living a bit of a split existence. I can just add one more hyphen. When I lived in Canada, I had a foot in the States. Now I have a foot in Canada. When you come down to it, isn’t that how most writers live–with one foot in the immediate surround, and another inside the work that goes on in their heads? Ugh, I’m mangling this metaphor so badly, I should have to walk around with a foot in my head.
AI: What kind of work do you do in SF?
JB: For nearly nine years, I’ve taught year-round poetry classes for adults at The Writing Salon in the Mission district, as well as working privately with a few individual writers. During the academic year, I also tutor part-time at The University of San Francisco, and pick up various freelance gigs. This is an expensive city, and we have a teenager, so I scramble a fair bit.
AI: Thoughts on teaching poetry? What is it that you teach your students?
JB: If there’s one thing I try to convey above all else, it’s the importance of breaking the tyranny of pre-determined subject matter, just enough to allow for real discoveries to happen in the writing. This is something I’ve had to learn and relearn myself, and each time I “relearn” it is an exhilaration.
Many beginners–and not just a few seasoned writers–feel that they can’t write without that familiar pressure in the chest, the one associated with something particularly painful in their lives. They’re carrying such a heavy biscuit when they sit down to write, it’s no wonder they avoid their desks. What I try to teach, and it’s often a challenge since we’re so often bound by our versions of “what actually happened,” is that whether you’re exploring metaphor by writing from the point of view of a lychee nut, or taking on the challenges of some new and unfamiliar form, it’s the engagement with language that matters most. If divorce is on your mind, that lychee nut might be cleaved, that delicious word that means both torn apart and joined, and what would that suggest about separation and loss? Maybe a villanelle’s patterns of repetition won’t narrow your possible word choices, but actually expand them, pointing to a word you’d never have considered, but which couldn’t be more apt. These kinds of playful engagements are, I think, the best ways to discover meaning you couldn’t have predicted, and to make poems that are fresher, deeper, and more relevant to the reader. In that state of mind, your heart rate goes up just reading the dictionary. You come to realize that your angle of approach can vary wildly, but your own themes will always surface, and that no-one’s going to take away your voice.
Hmm, I notice that the teacherly “you” has infiltrated this conversation.
AI: How has your work changed in form and content over the three books?
JB: I hope the work has become more expansive. Some poems from the first two books might confuse precision with depth, though I’m likely not the best judge of that. The books span 20 years. I’ve grown older, had a kid, and the newer poems should, to steal a photographic term, have a wider angle of view. Teaching has also been helpful to me as a writer. I decided early on that I couldn’t impose anything on my students I wasn’t willing to try, and I think that kind of playfulness, coupled with the game exuberance I see in so many of my students has tempered a streak of preciousness in me. It’s made the writing more fun.
AI: You’re not prolific ( I should talk)—can you talk about your writing process?
JB: Yes, I’m awfully slow, but most of that has to do with being an ardent reviser. And often, it’s only when I see the shadow of a manuscript emerging from what had been just a stack of drafts, that I can finish certain pieces, since the revisions involve not only what’s on that particular page, but how that poem might interact with its new neighbors, in its new town.
AI: Thoughts on traditional poetic forms and metrics? How important is sound?
JB: I like the constraints of traditional forms, and the surprising ways those limitations can be freeing, but I’ve only included a few loose sonnets in my books. That may change in the next collection, since I’m having a good time with certain fixed forms at the moment.
Sound matters a great deal. Free verse is really just variations on basic iambic pentameter (I hate to see de eve’nin sun go down—ta-dum,ta-dum,ta-dum, ta-tum,ta-dum–the sound of our heart-beats), and patterns of stress are an essential part of a poem’s tension and meaning. I’ve never written strict metrical verse, but my ear is tuned to where the stresses fall in a poem, as well as to alliteration, assonance and consonance, and to how line breaks manipulate sound.
AI: How does a poem gather in your head?
JB: A poem can begin almost anywhere, but the most common scenario starts as an itch that I can’t quite scratch. There might be two or three seemingly unrelated images or bits of conversation or musical phrases, and an intuition that these things are connected. The real work lies in finding that connective tissue, and in the process, discovering why this particular poem wants to be written, what gesture it wants to make. I once heard Robert Pinsky describe some poems in terms of their “infinitives.” He looked at several pieces for the particular movement or gesture in each one; to seek, to lament, to persuade. That’s an approach I’ve found to be very helpful, as long as I don’t close in on the poem’s infinitive too soon, and exclude other possibilities the poem may hold. I always want to let the poem lead, and I think a reader knows when a writer has wrested control of the thing too early. Those poems feel predetermined, as if the writer has decided the poem’s an elegy, while the poem itself feels resistant –like it really wants to blow the deceased’s cover.
Very rarely, a finished poem just lands in my lap. But those usually come when I’ve been working hard on thorny pieces, or ones I’ve had to abandon. I no longer stand around waiting for lightning to strike. Life’s too short.
AI: Do you see yourself as having a ‘poetic project’ that continues as a through- line in your books. What is it that you seek to engage with, to investigate over the years?
JB: Probably, ibid: That life’s too short. Occasionally, I’ll concoct grand plans for what’s next, but in the end the work seems to create its own path. I have to trust that there’s more than one note to be struck concerning the fact that we’re temporary–I think the history of literature certainly bears that out–and that those notes can also be ones of dark humor, and even joy.
AI: In Monkey Ranch: “Snapshot at Uxmal, 1972,” you fix on what appears to be a photograph of you as a teenager with your photographer mother. Mother pays attention to detail in her work, lots of zoom lens; father speaks of the – ‘vast scale of what he saw while heading off to visit larger ruins.’ You remark on the teenager in the photo: ‘Her father’s impatience hasn’t flared in her yet, / though she carries that too, an unstruck match.’ Care to comment?
JB: That poem arose from coming across a photo I’d taken of my mother, resting against a temple wall with her cameras. At fifteen, I was heavily identified with her. I would never have guessed that aspects of my father I also carried–his single-mindedness among them–were the very things that would let me differentiate myself from her later on. When a child acts as a buffer, or a compensation for a shaky marriage, growing up and away can feel like a betrayal of that close parent. It can also anger the more distant parent, who needs the child to fill in for them emotionally, and that creates additional pressure on the kid.
That’s a lot of baggage for such a little poem to carry. I hope the reader doesn’t need all that information to feel the latent tension between a mother and daughter, but it is what underlies the “unstruck match.” A lot of young people feel they are responsible for maintaining their family dynamic, and that opting out of their assigned role is tantamount to setting fire to the family.
AI: I note several references to Elizabeth Bishop. How has she influenced your thinking and writing?
JB: I’ve been reading Bishop for many years–the poems and prose, all her collections of letters, and every biography out there. In truth, I have no idea whether my great affection for her work has had any direct influence me or not, but I’ve often felt changed as a person by reading her. What I love best about her poems is how the emotional pressure of what’s left unsaid seeps through. All she has to do is describe that greasy little doily or the “hirsute begonia” in her poem “Filling Station,” and I’m awash in both beauty and loneliness.
AI: Do you need any particular circumstances to be able to write?
JB: An empty flat is best but very rare, so I use the circumstances at hand. At the busiest times of the year, I have a standing, weekly writing appointment with my notebook in a parked car. As long as words get put down on a regular basis, I can live with myself, and I suspect this makes me easier to live with. I had a residency at The MacDowell Colony many years ago, and I’ve kept a little essence of that kind of stillness tucked away inside. When I need it, I pour out just a few drops. A tincture of quiet. One day, I hope to get back there and refill it for the next decade or two.
AI: Which poets should we read, dead and alive?
JB: I’m a promiscuous reader, so I’ll narrow it to (mostly) living writers in my country of residence. I have two current enthusiasms. The first is for what the Buddhists call “monkey mind,” meaning poems that dramatize the movement of mind, with all those meanderings and loop-de-loops, though never at the expense of clarity and communication. This would include work by Lucia Perillo, Bob Hicok, Paul Muldoon, Jim Harrison, Nikki Finney, and C.K. Williams, just for starters.
A second excitement comes from poems that compress and distill, and here I think of Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, Rae Armantrout and Jane Kenyon. Of course, this excludes poets who do both. It’s an impossible question, and if we throw Canada in the mix, I’m overwhelmed. Suffice to say, I can’t wait to get my paws on a copy of Sue Goyette’s new book, “Ocean.”
AI: Californians are very outdoorsy, hiking and camping etc. You?
JB: Such a waste! I’m an urban creature, happy with daily walks or runs in Golden Gate Park. Occasionally we leave the neighborhood to be astounded by the natural beauty of the state, but at heart we are city rats. You don’t really need to leave San Francisco to feel connected to nature. We have the shoreline of the Bay, the Presidio, Crissy Field, all the boats, and the fog blowing in and out. In our neighborhood, the fog tends to be in, which lends a winterish character to the summers.
AI: What music do you listen to? You refer to Richard Thompson a couple of times in your work.
JB: I’ve always been a devoted fan of Richard Thompson, both as a guitarist and songwriter, and there are other singer-songwriters on my list (Patty Larkin, high among them), but my own playlists have been eclipsed by my 15-year-old’s . She has the vinyl collection, and the biggest speakers in the house. That means I hear a lot of Vampire Weekend and The Vaccines, among others. Hardship? I think not.
— Ann Ireland & Julie Bruck
Poems from Monkey Ranch
THIS MORNING, AFTER AN EXECUTION AT SAN QUENTIN
[SPACESPACE]My husband said he felt human again
after days of stomach flu, made himself French toast,
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]then lay down again to be sure.
[SPACESPACE]I took our daughter to the zoo,
where she stood on small flowered legs, transfixed by the drone
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]of the howler monkey,
[SPACESPACESPACESPAC]a sound more retch than howl.
[SPACESPACE]Singing monkey, my girl says.
She is well-rested. We all are. As we slept, cold spring air arrived,
[SPACESPACESPACES]blown from the Bay where San Quentin
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]casts its sharp light.
[SPACESPACE]Tonight, my girl will tell her father
(a man restored, even grateful, for a day or so), about what she
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]saw in the raised cage.
[SPACESPACESPACESPACE]Monkey singing, she will tell him,
[SPACESPACE]and later, tell every corner of her cool dark room,
until the crib springs ease because she’s run out of joy,
[SPACESPACESPACESPACESPACE]and fallen asleep on her knees.
SNAPSHOT AT UXMAL, 1972
Leaning into the sun-warmed stone, she must
be fifty, still beautiful, her strong frame
easy inside her loose shirt and jeans.
He’s gone to a larger ruin for the day,
someplace deeper in the jungle, more
challenging to reach by jeep or tank.
Here, where the early Mayans worshipped
the sun, appeased their gods with routine
live sacrifice, she will photograph only
small details in black and white. Later,
he’ll describe the jungle’s colours, ornate
bird plumage, the vast scale of what he saw.
She will need the afternoon to document a single
weed growing through a crack in the pediment,
a candy wrapper blown against an ancient step.
And there is the daughter, fifteen and not
quite as sullen as she’s going to be, shouldering
the pack of lenses, her mother’s fine-grain film.
Her father’s impatience hasn’t flared in her yet,
though she carries that too, an unstruck match,
trailing her mother through the tall, dry grass.
LIVE NEWS FEED
I am watching my mother’s neighbourhood
explode on live TV, when Ruth, my father’s
girlfriend, calls from her renovated kitchen,
reports she is baking an apple cake.
On screen, one more disaffected youth
in a trenchcoat, and bodies–trauma units
filling up fast with the dead and injured.
My father is 92, she is ten years younger.
They live in her B.C. apple orchard
after a twenty-five-year affair, which
somehow slipped under everyone’s radar,
lasting half of my parents’ marriage.
Are you watching the news? I ask.
Yes, she says, terrible isn’t it?
If I’d been able to speak, I would
have said, Yes Ruth, I haven’t reached
my mother: perhaps she’s dead.
But my father needs to talk
about an insight he’s gleaned
from a Steinbeck novel-on-tape.
I ask whether he’s seen the news.
Awful, isn’t it? he says,
and returns to East of Eden.
It is already dark in Montreal.
Blue police lights bounce on wet
streets and buildings I knew better
than my own hand, everything
cordoned with yellow crime-tape.
Once, I’d thought we’d all driven
my father away: conversation at the family
table was fast, digression the rule.
He’d often dozed off by dessert.
Guns drawn, a SWAT team flanks
the door to my mother’s building.
My father wraps up Steinbeck, inquires after
my health, says their kitchen smells good:
Ruth took those apples from the neighbour’s orchard.
She swears stolen apples have more flavor.
I used to watch my supple mother
bend to collect shells on the beach.
They piled up on the porch furniture–
she rarely threw anything back.
Look at how the water’s made
a Henry Moore hole in this one
she’d say, look–but I didn’t want
to be told what to look at, how to see,
didn’t want her using my head as
a spare room for her own, a self-
storage unit, though I couldn’t have
said so then, not even to myself.
Instead, I’d get a knot in my chest
that tightened on cue, I’d darken.
Now, when I gaze at my daughter,
she raises her eyes to mine in defiance:
Stop looking at me, she’ll growl, and why
am I surprised? I was looking at her brave brow,
the profile that’s her own and no-one else’s,
because yes, she’s a physical extension
of her father and me–I’m looking at what
we made, and she knows this in her marrow, puts
on her 100-yard stare and turns her face away:
all I can see is the tip of one ear,
sunlit almost to transparency,
its delicate runnels and inlets
shaped, as if by water.
Poems from End of Travel
SEX NEXT DOOR
It’s rare, slow as a creaking of oars,
and she is so frail and short of breath
on the street, the stairs–tiny, Lilliputian,
one wonders how they do it.
So, wakened by the shiftings of their bed nudging
our shared wall as a boat rubs its pilings,
I want it to continue, before her awful
hollow coughing fit begins. And when
they have to stop (always), until it passes, let
us praise that resumed rhythm, no more than a twitch
really, of our common floorboards. And how
he’s waited for her before pushing off
in their rusted vessel, bailing when they have to,
but moving out anyway, across the black water.
A BUS IN NOVA SCOTIA
“I felt as if I was being kidnapped, even if I wasn’t.”
Imagine Elizabeth six years old,
being torn from this narrow province,
a train’s headlamp dividing the dark, south-west,
all the way to Worcester, Massachussetts, 1916.
Our bus flies down the same curved road,
past the sign for Pictou County, and a yellow
diamond warning magically of Flying Stones.
The skies are wild and northern. I can still
hear the aggrieved honking of the Canada goose
I disturbed this morning in the Wildlife Management Area,
and now, by the sign ordering us to YEILD
in the late half-light, I almost expect
Miss Bishop’s lonely moose, high as a church,
homely as a house, to appear at the next bend.
Our driver waves to every passing truck.
Their headlights flash across a farmhouse window,
redden the eye of a roadside dog.
One trucker doffs his cap as he roars past,
going home to his invisible house by the water,
where five pennies buys you a great many humbugs,
where the dress was all wrong. She screamed.
The child vanishes. Where the moon
in the bureau mirror looks out a million miles.
WAKING UP THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
Just back from California this early Sunday,
and now, those introspective singer-songwriters, or Bach,
even the manic genius of Glenn Gould–just won’t cut it.
Outside, in the gentle Montreal morning
of my childhood, an old man shuffles past
on the arm of his paid, young companion.
Pink impatiens do what they do in orderly beds,
as the odd cyclist zips by in black-and-white Spandex
under Sherbrooke Street’s arched maples.
A homeless man, his hand out for change, seems
tentative, even apologetic. In San Francisco,
I heard someone tell a panhandler, ‘Sorry man,
but change comes from within.’ Yes, that’s
a non-sequitur, and neighbours, I’m sorry.
But this moth on the window screen is too grey
and plain to me, after driving the fire-seared hills
of Oakland, after crossing the Bay Bridge
to the city at nightfall, as bank fog moved
like pure violet cataclysm across the navy bay.
Neighbours, this calls for Peter Gabriel,
his overblown synthesizers, overlaid drum tracks.
Neighbours, we live like orderly mice here
atop the Laurentian fault, Precambrian
and deep as the San Andreas. Surely, this
calls for a brighter noise. I’m sorry, neighbours–
you, concert pianist; you, sleepy optician;
you, McGill phys.ed coach with the girlfriend,
here only on weekends–I’m sorry. But the man
I love sleeps on his side in that other landscape,
fog stalled over the city, as Sandburg said, on cat’s feet.
Here, our papers fill with fights over the language
of signs, instead of what they signify. I’m sorry,
neighbours, to wake you from pleasant or anxious
dreams, but the very limestone under your beds
is grinding against itself right now (for God’s
sake, I could have put on Wagner’s marches!),
and this building settled on its foundations
nearly one hundred years ago and trembles
with every bus that goes by. Neighbours,
I’m sorry about all this bass and percussion
so early on a Sunday, but hey–d’you feel that?
At the edge of sleep, I thought it was snow
I heard brush and rattle the bay windows;
the same hour when cars glide soundlessly
down white Montreal streets and the smell
of winter creeps around window frames,
straight under doors into dreams.
But our baby is now the size of a lima bean
and growing fast in this place where winter
means red bottle brushes dangling from trees
and crazy-fragile freesias in street vendors’ buckets.
I must have curled myself around our bean
like a thick seed-coating against the cold,
and I was glad to do so, though when I woke,
way, way down in the bed, small as I could
make myself, what I heard in this clear, indigo
midnight, was the bottle-picker’s progress
among our block’s blue boxes, and it was
a minor miracle that the empties could rattle so
in a grocery cart filling with snow.
— Julie Bruck
Julie Bruck is the author of three collections of poems from Brick Books: MONKEY RANCH (2012), THE END OF TRAVEL (1999), and THE WOMAN DOWNSTAIRS (1993). Her work also appears in magazines and journals like The New Yorker, Ms, Ploughshares, The Walrus, The Malahat Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Maisonneuve, Literary Mama, and others, and her poems have been widely anthologized. Her awards and fellowships include, Canada’s 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, The A.M. Klein Award for Poetry, two Pushcart Prize nominations, Gold Canadian National Magazine Awards (twice), a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award, as well as grants from The Canada Council for the Arts, and a Catherine Boettcher Fellowship from The MacDowell Colony. Montreal-born and raised, Julie has taught at several colleges and universities in Canada, and has been a resident faculty member at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire. Since 2005, she has taught poetry workshops for The Writing Salon in San Francisco’s Mission district, and tutored students at The University of San Francisco. She lives in San Francisco’s foggy Inner Sunset district with her husband, the writer Lewis Buzbee, their daughter Maddy, and two enormous geriatric goldfish. She is currently writing poems for a new manuscript, with the working title of DOMINION.
Ann Ireland is the author of four novels, most recently THE BLUE GUITAR, which has been getting excellent reviews all across Canada. She coordinates the Writing Workshops department at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, in Toronto. She teaches on line writing courses and edits novels for other writers from time to time. She also writes profiles of artists for Canadian Art Magazine and Numéro Cinq Magazine (where she is Contributing Editor). Dundurn Press republished Ann’s second novel THE INSTRUCTOR in Spring, 2013.
1. “When Writers Hate”
Morrissey is right, we hate it when our friends become successful. Gore Vidal is even more honest, confessing, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Near the end of the film Sideways, the rivalrous friendship of Jack and Miles is echoed by the novel Miles has assigned one of his young pupils to read aloud, John Knowle’s 1959 A Separate Peace, a tale of envy, perhaps even murderous envy, between schoolboy friends. Shakespeare’s Iago is envy on two legs. Adrift in a life before talking cures, support groups or good yoga, Cain walked alone with envy.
In life and art, friendship often oscillates between admiration and envy. Two recent shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art showcased the reciprocal rivalry between Picasso and Matisse, as well as Cézanne and Pissarro. The 2004 documentary DiG!, chronicles the not-so-friendly rivalry between the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. When envy worms its way into writing, particularly into the novel, subject and medium collide. Writing is envy’s preferred medium.
Writing slides someone else’s thoughts through our brain, and those thoughts come through the public medium of language. In the incomplete neuroscience of thought, writers and visual artists can admire and envy each other: humans may think more quickly through images, but, some contend, we think more specifically through language. And when we do think visually, we don’t necessarily see another artist’s brushstrokes, another photographer’s composition. When we think verbally, however, we think through the shared property of words and the evolving codes of language. Words are only made by humans, whereas the stuff of visual art—color, texture, scale, shape, line, etc.—partially pre-exist in the world. When this latent alterity of language is combined with the novel, which many regard as the ideal genre of the self, we hold in our laps the perfect testing ground for one of life’s dirty little secrets. We hate it when our friends become successful. We do, at least a little.
Last night I went to see the Canadian documentary Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould which movie you should all see for its demonstration of how an intelligent and passionate artist talks and interacts with the world. Ever since I saw on TV years ago Gould’s performance in the CBC Cities series I’ve been entranced by the speed of his thinking (which, yes, recapitulates the speed of his fingers playing Bach). Also he was hilarious. See the scene in which he sings to the elephants at the Toronto zoo. Or, yes, touring downtown Toronto for the cameras at night, he says this: “I tend to follow a very nocturnal sort of existence mainly because I don’t much care for sunlight. Bright colors of any kind depress me, in fact. And my moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky, on any given day. A matter of fact, my private motto has always been that behind every silver lining there is a cloud.” Both scenes are in Genius Within. As is a gorgeous story told by Herbert von Karajan of Gould’s great Russian tour, when he was young and no one in Russia knew who he was. The Moscow Conservatory was less than half full when he started the concert. Within minutes people started slipping out to the telephones, calling their friends. You have to get to the Conservatory right now. By the beginning of the second half of the concert, the theatre was packed. Gould had to add to concerts to his tour. At his last performance in Leningrad, they waived the fire regulations and let in 1500 standing room ticket holders. Even the aisles were crowded.
And think about this, from the Glenn Gould Reader:
The trouble begins when we start to be so impressed by the strategies of our systematized thought that we forget that it does relate to an obverse, that it is hewn from negation, that it is but very small security against the void of negation which surrounds it. And when that happens, when we forget these things, all sorts of mechanical failures begin to disrupt the functions of the human personality. When people who practice an art like music become captives of those positive assumptions of system, when they forget to credit that happening against negation which system is, and when they become disrespectful of the immensity of negation compared to system — then they put themselves out of reach of that replenishment of invention upon which creative ideas depend, because invention is, in fact, a cautious dipping into the negation that lies outside system from a position firmly ensconced in system.
It’s a huge pleasure to introduce Adam Westra to Numéro Cinq readers. Adam is a philosopher and translator and he happens to be studying Kant. This amazing essay proves that good writing exists in many forms and many arenas, that there is beauty in clarity, that vigorous, surprising prose is not just the province of the novelist and memoirist. Adam grew up in Calgary, with a year-long interlude in southern France at the age of seven, after which he went to a French Lycée, then Western Canada High School. He escaped to the Netherlands for a year before heading to the University of British Columbia, where he did a B.A. in Honours Philosophy (2003-2007). Thence to Montreal to do a Master’s in Philosophy at the Université de Montréal (2007-2009; thesis title: La Critique de la raison pure, une oeuvre inachevée). Now working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy in Montreal and Berlin on the role of analogy in philosophical thinking, with a particular emphasis on Kant.
Douglas Hofstadter is an author worth reading: he has something to say, and he says it well. This fact jumped off the page with the 1979 publication of his brilliant, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (GEB). This eccentric, eclectic and electrifying book fascinated all kinds of readers for all kinds of reasons, and its audacious young author was instantly hailed as a one-of-a-kind, ‘geeky genius’.  The irony, as Hofstadter himself points out, in both the Preface to the 20th anniversary edition of GEB (1999) and again, in the Preface to his most recent work, I Am A Strange Loop (2007), is that while his first book’s success allowed him to capture the attention of a wide audience, as well as to secure an exceptionally free and well-supported academic position (notably the ‘Fluid Analogies Research Group’ at the University of Indiana) for pursuing his ideas, the most central – and original – insight contained in GEB, namely, “the parallel between Gödel’s miraculous manufacture of self-reference out of a substrate of meaningless symbols and the miraculous appearance of selves and souls in substrates consisting of inanimate matter” seems nevertheless to have gone unheard, like “a shout into a chasm” (SL, xiii). His goal in Strange Loop is therefore to reformulate, re-explain, and also to explore new aspects of this very insight – and this time, with “maximal clarity” (SL, xvii). 
Indeed, one of the very first, and most significant, points that Hofstadter makes in this work is that what he says and how he says it, (and also that it is he who’s saying it), are inextricably bound together. In particular, Hofstadter takes analogy “very seriously”, having spent the greater part of his career studying its role in human thought:
“[…] I specialize in thinking about thinking. Indeed […] this topic has fueled my fire ever since I was a teen-ager. And one of my firmest conclusions is that we always think by seeking and drawing parallels to things we know from our past, and that we therefore communicate best when we exploit examples, analogies, and metaphors galore, when we avoid abstract generalities, when we use very down-to-earth, concrete, and simple language, and when we talk directly about our own experiences” (SL, xv).
And virtually all of the points, major and minor, that are made in the subsequent 350 pages are accordingly expressed by means of more-or-less explicit analogies (the formulations “just as … so”, “similarly”, “by contrast”, etc., are ubiquitous) and an amazing variety of concrete imagery, often drawn from everyday life. Now, in both this important descriptive claim about the analogical/metaphorical nature of human cognition (“we always think”), as well as the consequent normative claim regarding the optimal form of conceptualization and reasoning (“we therefore communicate best”), Hofstadter’s starting-point and consequent approach to the study of the mind differ fundamentally from the “Snow is white” propositional model of human language and thought that is often used as a paradigm in contemporary analytic philosophy. In fact, this view of his actually comes much closer to that of the emerging “embodied cognition” movement – despite the curious fact that he never mentions the latter specifically – whose representatives, such as Mark Johnson and George Lakoff, argue – like Hofstadter, on the basis of neuroscientific research, and, again like Hofstadter, to a relatively wide audience – that all human thinking, including philosophical reflection, emerges from the body via a metaphorically-mediated process of abstraction. In any case, Hofstadter’s recognition of the importance and power of analogical thought is in itself a remarkable and distinctive contribution to a philosophical scene in which analogy is largely dismissed or ignored.
The book’s twenty-four chapters (each one divided into idiosyncratically titled sections) can, grosso modo, be divided into two main parts: in chapters 1-14, Hofstadter gradually builds up his theory of the Self (or “soul” or “I” or “consciousness” – all synonymous terms for him); in chapters 15-24, he draws some consequences from his central insight, responds to objections, and takes a stab at some traditional and contemporary philosophical problems.
The core ideas of the book all come together in Chapter 20, featuring a dialogue (a form familiar to GEB readers), between two characters, Strange Loops #641 and #642, who represent, respectively, Hofstadter and an imaginary skeptic. Now, the challenge for Hofstadter is to make comprehensible (without necessarily proving) how the notion, nay even the feeling of identity – that there is “something it is like” to be me – emerges from a merely physical substrate, such as – but not necessarily limited to – the human brain, which is composed of neurons, which are in turn composed of molecules, and so on all the way down to quantum particles – which, for Hofstadter, is where the “true causality” of the physical universe ultimately resides (SL, 297) – and this, without having recourse to any form of metaphysical or supernatural dualism. To the skeptic, then, who balks at the very prospect of providing an account of consciousness in such a framework, he offers the following hypothesis:
I sympathize with your sense of the barrenness of a universe made of physical phenomena only, but some kinds of physical systems can mirror what’s on their outside and can launch actions that depend upon their perceptions. That’s the thin end of the wedge. […] When perception takes place in a system with a truly rich, fluidly extensible set of symbols [e.g. a non-embryonic, non-infantile human brain], then an ‘I’ will arise just as inevitably as strange loops arise in the barren fortress of Principia Mathematica (SL, 282).
Now, the “symbols” invoked here do not designate arbitrary tokens, nor the images encountered in myth or dream, but rather the physical correlates (in the case of a human brain, the specific neural structures) ‘triggerable’ by certain abstract concepts; “perception” is just the ‘triggering’ or activation of such structures, whether through sensation, memory, or imagination. For example, the specific brain structure activated when you see or think of the Eiffel Tower is your “Eiffel Tower symbol”, and this activation is just what it is to perceive the Eiffel Tower (SL, 76). Crucially, the human brain’s system of symbols is so complex that it possesses a virtually unlimited or “universal” representational capacity (in Turing’s sense of “universal computability,” described in Chapter 17).
This is where the central analogy with Gödel’s ‘Incompleteness Theorem’ comes in: according to Hofstadter, Gödel’s great discovery consisted in showing, by means of a sophisticated mapping technique, that the formal system contained in Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica inevitably produces, because of its universal representational capacity, certain self-referential statements, or “strange loops”. An analogous phenomenon is just as inevitably produced in the brain, and this, combined with humans’ “innate blindness” to the inner workings of our own brains, i.e. “our inability to see, feel or sense in any way the constant, frenetic churning and roiling of micro-stuff, all the unfelt bubbling and boiling that underlies our thinking” (SL, 204) effectively makes us hallucinate an “I”, a Self which – or rather, who – seems to run the show, i.e. whose apparent causal agency according to beliefs and desires feels like the “realest” thing in the world (SL, 202). In a word, the “I” is not the starting-point, but rather the gradual outcome of a complex process of perception that twists back on itself, thereby giving rise, over time, to an ineradicable, yet indispensable, illusion: “I” (SL, 204). Again, Hofstadter is not necessarily trying to prove this claim as a definitive theory of consciousness, but rather sees himself as offering a new perspective on the mind, a sort of ‘Copernican Revolution’: “My claim that an ‘I’ is a hallucination perceived by a hallucination is somewhat like the heliocentric viewpoint – it can yield new insights but it’s very counterintuitive, and it’s hardly conducive to easy communication with other human beings, who all believe in their ‘I’s with indomitable fervor” (SL, 293). More fundamentally, Hofstadter offers a distinctive vision of the human condition (or at least a new variation on an ancient and recurring theme): insofar as we cannot help believing in the “story” we tell ourselves – namely, that each one of has, or rather is, an “I” – it then follows that “the human condition is, by its very nature, one of believing in a myth” (SL, 295).
The skeptic’s recurring objection to this picture is the following: “Where, in this picture, am I? Where is the something-it-is-like to be me? Where are my qualia?” In a paradoxical vein, Hofstadter (i.e. Strange Loop #641) replies that this ‘special feeling’ combined with the skeptic’s very resistance to the idea that the “I” could merely be the product of blind and invisible particles, just are the illusion he has described; furthermore, the I arises only out of a special kind of physical system: one characterized by an abstract, recursive pattern called a “strange loop,” analogous to a Gödelian self-referential statement.
It is at this exact point, I believe, that this crucial analogy between the strange loop in the brain and Gödel’s strange loop is at its weakest. Specifically, one could object that the ways in which the self-referential patterns emerge in the two cases do not seem to be analogous at all. On the one hand, Hofstadter is committed to saying that the Self emerges from the brain “automatically,” or “inevitably,” as only in this way can the emergence of consciousness be envisaged as taking place under the strictly physical, deterministic laws that constitute the “true causality” of the universe; otherwise, some sui generis mental substance (which he mockingly dubs “feelium” or “élan mental”) would ostensibly be required to explain the insertion of the “I” into the otherwise barren physical universe, devoid of properly ‘mental’ phenomena. Now, Hofstadter repeatedly justifies this claim by analogy with the way in which Gödel’s “strange loop” arises, as at the end of the longer passage quoted above (SL, 282), and again quite clearly here:
Consciousness […] is an inevitable emergent consequence of the fact that the system has a sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories. Like Gödel’s strange loop, which arises automatically in any sufficiently powerful formal system of number theory, the strange loop of selfhood will automatically arise in any sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories, and once you’ve got self, you’ve got consciousness. Élan mental is not needed (SL, 325, my emphasis in bold).
But does this analogy really hold? More precisely, does it make sense to say that a self-referential Gödelian statement “arises automatically” qua “natural and inevitable outcome of the deep representational power” of Principia Mathematica’s formal system (SL, 161)?
The trouble is that such an interpretation of the analogy does not appear to be consistent with Hofstadter’s own characterization of Gödel’s proof. In Chapters 8-12, Hofstadter mounts an impressive attempt to explicate Gödel’s procedure and to convey his own sense of its significance. According to this picture, however, Gödel’s “strange loop” seems to be the very opposite of “natural and inevitable”: indeed, the sophisticated and recondite procedure by which the young Austrian mathematician painstakingly crafted his proof appears entirely artificial and arbitrary. And crucially, it is this very procedure that constitutes the “why” of Gödel’s strange loop: the latter did not “automatically” emerge from within Principia Mathematica’s formal system, but was, rather, intentionally produced from the outside. As Hofstadter himself writes: “Gödel carefully concocted a statement about numbers and revealed that, because of how he had designed it, it had a very strange alternate meaning” (SL, 171, my emphasis in bold). In other words, the representational power of the formal system described in Principia Mathematica is merely the condition of the possibility of the emergence of a strange loop, not its cause (in logical terms: a merely necessary, not a sufficient condition). Therefore, one cannot say that the strange loop is a “natural and inevitable” product of the formal system itself; rather, it is clearly the artificial and arbitrary product of Gödel’s artificial and arbitrary design which, it could be argued, clearly presupposes a deliberate act of consciousness to begin with. In other words, while the formal system may indeed talk about itself, as Hofstadter insists, it does not do so by itself, but only because Gödel makes it speak. So, returning to the analogy with the brain/consciousness, we must now ask: if Gödel’s strange loop does not in fact arise “automatically” from a substrate of meaningless formal symbols, then why should we think that consciousness emerges “automatically” from a substrate consisting of inanimate matter? Indeed, we could even invert the analogy, in true Hofstadteresque fashion, substituting ‘God’ for ‘Gödel’: just as Gödel’s strange loop only emerges as the product of his consciousness, so are the strange loops constitutive of our respective ‘I’s produced in the consciousness of God! From Hofstadter’s physicalism we end up with full-blown idealism à la Berkeley. We need not go so far, of course; the point is just to stress that Gödel’s intentional mathematical procedure does not seem to be an adequate analogue for the blind physical process through which consciousness ostensibly arises.
Now, Hofstadter would surely respond to the above objection as follows: while the ultimate source of the Self does indeed reside at the level of physical particles governed by universal causal laws, the strange loop as such only arises at a much higher level of abstraction, namely, the level of perception, categories, and symbols:
The sole root of all these strange phenomena is perception, bringing symbols and meanings into physical systems. To perceive is to make a fantastic jump from William James’ “booming, buzzing confusion” to an abstract, symbolic level. And then, when perception twists back and focuses on itself, as it inevitably will, you get rich, magical-seeming consequences. Magical-seeming, mind you, but not truly magical. You get a level-crossing feedback loop whose apparent solidity dominates the reality of everything else in the world (SL, 300, my emphasis in bold).
The most obvious objection here, from an idealist-phenomenological perspective, is of course that this symbolic, meaningful perception presupposes consciousness: meaning is not ‘read off’ the raw data of sensation, but rather ‘read into’ the latter. The same presupposition holds, a fortiori, for Gödel’s proof of the Incompleteness Theorem, qua deliberate cognitive act: Gödel’s strange loop only arises as a meaningful statement to the extent that it has been consciously constructed, i.e., produced by an intentional “act” or “arbitrary synthesis,” to use Kant’s terms. Obviously, explaining consciousness with consciousness can’t be what Hofstadter intends, as it amounts to begging the question, and even worse, begging it in the wrong way, as all true, ‘non-magical’ explanation, for him, must ultimately be in physical terms. But this makes the following question all the more pressing: in what sense are we to understand his claim that perception, qua abstract-physical process, will “inevitably” twist back on itself? Exactly what kind of necessity is being invoked here? Are we talking about the blind necessity proper to the physical substratum of the universe or we are talking at the abstract, symbolic, meaningful level? In the first case, we retain “inevitability” qua “true causality” of the universe, but on the other hand we lose abstract perception at this unfathomably lower level of neurons and seething particles. In the second case, we keep all of the ingredients for self-referential ‘strangeness’, i.e., perception, abstract categories, symbols, etc.; however, at this higher level of abstraction, we lose any meaningful (i.e. physical) sense of “inevitability”. However, these two levels are – indeed must be – incommensurable: recall that perception, and with it, the very possibility of ‘strangeness’, according to Hofstadter, depend on our “blindness” to the physical substrate of our thinking (SL, 204, quoted above). Whence the following dilemma: self-referential “strange loops”, as such, can only arise inevitably to the extent that they are not strange and, conversely, can only be strange to the extent that they are not inevitable. In other words, consciousness and physical necessity, as characterized by Hofstadter, do not seem to be conceptually or ontologically compatible. The fundamental question that Strange Loop was meant to answer must be posed anew: Whence the “fantastic jump” from the physical substrate to consciousness?
In the second part of the book, Hofstadter goes on to confront this perspective with the conceptions of other philosophers of mind (such as ‘Descartes’, John Searle, Derek Parfit, David Chalmers, and Daniel Dennett) and tackle some traditional and contemporary problems in the philosophy of mind (e.g. mind-body dualism, the so-called Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis, the free-will problem, etc.). In so doing, he makes heavy use of outlandish “thought experiments”, making this section of the book quite stimulating. He also engages with the conceptual creations of other philosophers, cleverly showing how ambiguous and misleading some of these rival scenarios can be (the ones concocted by Searle, in particular). But the sword is double-edged: after a few such skillful deconstructions, one can’t help but view his own conceptual scenarios with the same measure of suspicion. 
Moreover, Hofstadter’s treatment of certain philosophical problems (especially the ones he dubs the ‘Sacred Cows’) can come off as facile. For example, he seems to attack the – inappropriately named – ‘Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis’ as if it were just that, i.e., an empirical hypothesis about more or less rare cases involving human perception, and proceeds to put its empirical plausibility into doubt. It could be noted, first of all, that the slightly milder hypothesis that human beings perceive colours differently as a result of slight variations in their sense organs is not at all implausible from an empirical point of view; it is an established fact. More fundamentally, however, the Inverted Spectrum Hypothesis, from a properly philosophical point of view, has nothing to do with its empirical plausibility (a license that Hofstadter frequently claims for his own thought-experiments). The purpose of the thought-experiment (as employed by Wittgenstein, for example) is rather to paint a logical picture, as it were, from which one ‘reads off’ the conceptual links between ostensible mental states or ‘qualia’, on the one hand, and language, on the other. E.g., how and what am I ‘referring to’ when I utter the sentence: “The stop sign is red.”? Is it philosophically justifiable to invoke qualia here (i.e. the felt ‘redness’ of the sign to me, ‘in my head’, so to speak) or will some form of social convention offer a more plausible account (say, that the ‘redness’ of the sign consists in its use in a particular language-game: in this case, to indicate that one must stop one’s vehicle at the sign)? In the latter case, moreover, the ostensible qualia drop out as irrelevant anyway, empirical (im)plausibility notwithstanding.
Hofstadter is far more insightful, convincing, and at times even poignant – both intellectually and emotionally –when he wrestles with the mysteries of everyday life, his own in particular. Thus, the idea that other people to some extent live on inside us (that we are able, to a certain extent, to reproduce foreign “strange loops” in our brains) can come off as merely bizarre in the imaginary “Twinwirld”, but suddenly becomes, not just more plausible, but deeply insightful, even poetic, in Hofstadter’s passionate and earnest wrestling with the sudden loss of his wife Carol, his own “soul-mate”. Indeed, the earnestness and beauty of these reflections bear witness to the fact that Hofstadter’s work is more than merely idiosyncratic (even if brilliantly so); in reality, he has, in his distinctively playful way, something serious – because deeply personal, and hence genuinely human – to say. And for this reason, perhaps more than any other, his Strange Loop is well worth incorporating into your own.
Adam Westra’s web page is here.
- If I permit myself this expression, it’s only because I have the feeling that Hofstadter himself wouldn’t be insulted by this appellation, and might even be pleased by it.↵
- Douglas Hofstadter, I Am A Strange Loop, New York: Basic Books, 2007. 412 pages. Henceforth abbreviated as SL. All italics in quoted passages are Hofstadter’s.↵
- While he does intend to contribute to the philosophical debate on the nature of mind and self, Hofstadter explicitly forswears attempting to prove his point of view, finding the typical ‘proofs’ that philosophers tend to give of their theories to be ultimately futile. His primary purpose is not to convince, but to communicate, and only thereby to change his readers’ way of looking at things (in this case, at them-selves).↵
- In the Index, under the heading “analogies, serious examples of”, Hofstadter lists close to one hundred entries! Some examples: “between the author’s mind and others’ minds”; “between dog looking at pixels and Russell looking at Gödel’s formula”; “between gems in Caspian Sea and powers in Fibonacci sequence”; “between mosquito and flush toilet”; “between self-symbol and video feedback”.↵
- Hofstadter seems to have arrived at this analogy independently of Kant, who is never mentioned. See the Preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (B xvii) for the latter’s famous “Copernican Revolution” in metaphysics, also presented as a justification for a change of theoretical perspective.↵
- The felt quality of certain states of consciousness, often, but not limited to, sensation; e.g.: the ‘blueness’ of the light coming through a stained-glass window, the ‘tastes-like-cheap-coffeeness’ of a cheap cup of coffee, the ‘pastoralness’ of the note F-major, etc.↵
- See the chapter of the Critique of Pure Reason on mathematical method, “On the Discipline of Pure Reason in Its Dogmatic Use” (A 712-738 / B 740-766), as well as the paradigmatic example of ‘Thales’ proof’(B xi-xiii)↵
- That is, the so-called doctrines of “Cartesian dualism” and the “Cartesian ego” which are widely bandied about, seldom with adequate reference to their original context.↵
- That being said, Hofstadter’s ingenious playfulness, unfortunately rare among philosophers, is only to be encouraged; indeed, this aspect of his writing is more reminiscent of the intelligent and creative playfulness exhibited by certain artists and musicians (Glenn Gould comes to mind).↵
Capo di tutti capi
Douglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, was published in 2013.
Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, three books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Erotics of Restraint, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.
Glover has taught at several institutions of high learning but mostly wishes he hadn’t. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.
See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; “Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online; “A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail; “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.
Numéro Cinq at the Movies
R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton..
Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, a story collection, and Shetlag: una novela acentuada. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. He tweets at @f_sd.
Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap Pop, decomP magazinE, Spartan, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and essays have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.
Susan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award. She can be reached through her website, susanaizenberg.com..
Susan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario..
Deirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.
Chief Technical Officer/Internet Security
Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He also designed the logo (many years ago). He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.
The author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.
Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).
Julie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.
Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.
Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).
Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.
Gary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web Conjunctions, Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.
Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.
Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.
Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he edited a great little book of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His own essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He currently teaches writing at UCLA.
Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.
Alyssa Colton has a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her fiction has been published in The Amaranth Review and Women Writers. Her essays have appeared in Literary Arts Review, Author Magazine, Mothering, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, Iris: A Journal about Women, and on WAMC: Northeast Public Radio. Alyssa has taught classes in writing, literature, and theater at the University at Albany, the College of St. Rose, and Berkshire Community College and blogs about writing at abcwritingediting.
Nowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months..
Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.
Kathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest with, Lucky, her first novel, which was also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2014. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films.
Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of Frontier Justice, a study of the influence of the nineteenth century frontier on American literature, and the editor of a collection of essays on the African American writer Edward P. Jones. He can be found online at www.danieldaviswood.com..
Assistant to the Editor
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.
Currently based in Mexico City, Dylan Brennan writes poetry, essays and memoirs. His debut collection, Blood Oranges, for which he won The Patrick Kavanagh Award runner-up prize, was published by The Dreadful Press in 2014. His co-edited volume of academic essays Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film is available now from Legenda Books (2016). In addition to his work as Mexico Curator for Numéro Cinq, he regularly contributes to the online Mexican literary site Portal de Letras. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan.
Jeremy Brunger, originally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Laura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine..
Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).
A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.
Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.
Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”
Frank Richardson lives in Houston where he teaches English and Humanities. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.
Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was an editor and a contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.
Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.
Authors & Artists of Numéro Cinq
Ryem Abrahamson • Abdallah Ben Salem d’Aix • Alejandro de Acosta • Caroline Adderson • José Eduardo Agualusa • Susan Aizenberg • Ramón Alejandro • Taiaike Alfred • Gini Alhadeff • Abigail Allen • Steve Almond • Darran Anderson • Trevor Anderson • Jorge Carrera Andrade • Ralph Angel • A. Anupama • Guillaume Apollinaire • Jamaluddin Aram • Fernando Aramburu • Louis Armand • Melissa Armstrong • Tammy Armstrong • Glenn Arnold • Miguel Arteta • Adam Arvidson • Nick Arvin • Kim Aubrey • Shushan Avagyan • Steven Axelrod • Elizabeth Babyn • J. Karl Bogartte • Louise Bak • Bonnie Baker • Sybil Baker • Martin Balgach • Brandon Ballengée • Zsófia Bán • Phyllis Barber • John Banville • Byrna Barclay • Mike Barnes • Stuart Barnes • Kevin Barry • Donald Bartlett • Todd Bartol • John Barton • Sierra Bates • Svetislav Basarav • Charles Baudelaire • Tom Bauer • Melissa Considine Beck • Joshua Beckman • Laura Behr • Gerard Beirne • Amanda Bell • Ian Bell • Madison Smartt Bell • Dodie Bellamy • Joe David Bellamy • Leonard Bellanca • Russell Bennetts • Brianna Berbenuik • Samantha Bernstein • Michelle Berry • Jen Bervin • Victoria Best • Darren Bifford • Nathalie Bikoro • Eula Biss • Susan Sanford Blades • François Blais • Clark Blaise • Denise Blake • Vanessa Blakeslee • Rimas Blekaitis • Liz Blood • Harold Bloom • Ronna Bloom • Michelle Boisseau • Stephanie Bolster • John Bolton • Jody Bolz • Danila Botha • Danny Boyd • Donald Breckenridge • Dylan Brennan • Mary Brindley • Stephen Brockbank • Fleda Brown • Laura Catherine Brown • Nickole Brown • Lynne M. Browne • Julie Bruck • Jeremy Brunger • Michael Bryson • John Bullock • Bunkong Tuon • Diane Burko • Jeff Bursey • Peter Bush • Jane Buyers • Jowita Bydlowska • Mary Byrne • Agustín Cadena • David Caleb • Chris Campanioni • Jane Campion • J. N. F. M. à Campo • Jared Carney • David Carpenter • Michael Carson • Mircea Cărtărescu • Ricardo Cázares • Daniela Cascella • Blanca Castellón • Michael Catherwood • Anton Chekhov • David Celone • Corina Martinez Chaudhry • Kelly Cherry • Peter Chiykowski • Linda E. Chown • S. D. Chrostowska • Steven Church • Nicole Chu • Jeanie Chung • Alex Cigale • Sarah Clancy • Jane Clarke • Sheela Clary • Christy Clothier • Carrie Cogan • Ian Colford • Zazil Alaíde Collins • Tim Conley • Christy Ann Conlin • John Connell • Terry Conrad • Allan Cooper • Robert Coover • Cody Copeland • Sean Cotter • Cheryl Cowdy • Mark Cox • Dede Crane • Lynn Crosbie • Elsa Cross • S.D. Chrostowska Roger Crowley • Alan Crozier • Megan Cuilla • Alan Cunningham • Paula Cunningham • Robert Currie • Nathan Currier • Paul M. Curtis • Trinie Dalton • J. P. Dancing Bear • Lydia Davis • Taylor Davis-Van Atta • Robert Day • Sion Dayson • Martin Dean • Patrick Deeley • Katie DeGroot • Christine Dehne • Nelson Denis • Theodore Deppe • Tim Deverell • Jon Dewar • Jason DeYoung • Susanna Fabrés Díaz • Laura Michele Diener • Anne Diggory • Mary di Michele • Jeffrey Dodd • Anthony Doerr • Mary Donovan • Steve Dolph • Han Dong • Erika Dreifus • Jennifer duBois • Patricia Dubrava • Rikki Ducornet • Timothy Dugdale • Ian Duhig • Gregory Dunne • Denise Evans Durkin • Nancy Eimers • Jason Eisener • John Ekman • Okla Elliot • Shana Ellingburg • Susan Elmslie • Paul Eluard • Josh Emmons • Mathias Énard • Marina Endicott • Sebastian Ennis • Benjamin Evans • Kate Evans • Cary Fagan • Richard Farrell • Kinga Fabó • Kathy Fagan • Jared Daniel Fagen • Tom Faure • David Ferry • George Fetherling • Kate Fetherston • Laura Fine-Morrison • Patrick Findler • Melissa Fisher • Cynthia Flood • Stanley Fogel • Eric Foley • Larry Fondation • Paul Forte • Mark Foss • Tess Fragoulis • Anne Francey • Danielle Frandina • Jean-Yves Fréchette • Rodrigo Fresán • Abby Frucht • Simon Frueland • Kim Fu • Mark Frutkin • Róbert Gál • Mia Gallagher • Mavis Gallant • Andrew Gallix • Eugene K. Garber • Rosanna Garguilo • Gary Garvin • William Gass • Bill Gaston • Lise Gaston • Noah Gataveckas • Jim Gauer • Connie Gault • Edward Gauvin • Joël Gayraud • Charlie Geoghegan-Clements • Greg Gerke • Karen Gernant • Chantal Gervais • Marty Gervais • William Gillespie • Susan Gillis • Estelle Gilson • Nene Giorgadze • Renee Giovarelli • Jody Gladding • Jill Glass • Douglas Glover • Jacob Glover • Jonah Glover • Douglas Goetsch • Rigoberto González • Georgi Gospodinov • Alma Gottlieb • John Gould • Wayne Grady • Philip Graham • Richard Grant • Nowick Gray • R. W. Gray • Áine Greaney • Brad Green • Daniel Green • Henry Green • Catherine Greenwood • T. Greenwood • Darryl Gregory • Walker Griffy • Genese Grill • Rodrigo Gudiño • Genni Gunn • Richard Gwyn • Gabor G. Gyukics • Daniel Hahn • Donald Hall • Phil Hall • Nicky Harmon • Kate Hall • Susan Hall • Jane Eaton Hamilton • Elaine Handley • John Haney • Wayne J. Hankey • Julian Hanna • Jesus Hardwell • Jennica Harper • Elizabeth Harris • Meg Harris • Kenneth J. Harrison, Jr. • Richard Hartshorn • William Hathaway • Václav Havel • John Hawkes • Sheridan Hay • Bill Hayward • Hugh Hazelton • Jeet Heer • Steven Heighton • Lilliana Heker • Natali e Helberg • Olivia Hellewell • David Helwig • Maggie Helwig • Robin Hemley • Stephen Henighan • Claire Hennessy • Kay Henry • Julián Herbert • Sheila Heti • Darren Higgins • Tomoé Hill • Anne Hirondelle • Bruce Hiscock • H. L. Hix • Godfrey Ho •dee Hobsbawn-Smith • Andrej Hočevar • Jack Hodgins • Tyler Hodgins • Noy Holland • Greg Hollingshead • Dan Holmes • Cynthia Holz • Amber Homeniuk • Drew Hood • Bernard Hœpffner • Kazushi Hosaka • Gregory Howard • Tom Howard • Ray Hsu • David Huddle • Nicholas Humphries • Cynthia Huntington • Christina Hutchings • Matthew Hyde • Joel Thomas Hynes • Angel Igov • Ann Ireland • Agri Ismaïl • Mary Kathryn Jablonski • Richard Jackson • J. M. Jacobson • Fleur Jaeggy • Matthew Jakubowski • A. D. Jameson • Mark Anthony Jarman • David Jauss • Amanda Jernigan • Anna Maria Johnson • Steven David Johnson • Bill Johnston • Ben Johnstone • Cynan Jones • Julie Jones • Shane Jones • Pierre Joris • Gunilla Josephson • Gabriel Josipovici • Miranda July • Adeena Karasick • Wong Kar-Wai • Maggie Kast • Elizabeth Woodbury Kasius • Allison Kaufman • Aashish Kaul • Allan Kausch • John Keeble • Richard Kelly Kemick • Dave Kennedy • Maura Kennedy • Timothy Kercher • Jacqueline Kharouf • Anna Kim • Patrick J. Keane • Rosalie Morales Kearns • John Kelly • Victoria Kennefick • Besik Kharanauli • Daniil Kharms • Sean Kinsella • Rauan Klassnik • Lee Klein • Karl Ove Knausgaard • Montague Kobbé • James Kochalka • Wayne Koestenbaum • Ani Kopaliani • Jan Kounen • Lawrence Krauss • Fides Krucker • Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer • Anu Kumar • Sonnet L’Abbé • Yahia Lababidi • Andrea Labinger • M. Travis Lane • Zsolt Láng • Julie Larios • Mónica Lávin • Evan Lavender-Smith • Bruno LaVerdiere • Sophie M. Lavoie • Mark Lavorato • Daniel Lawless • Sydney Lea • Ang Lee • Whitney Lee • Diane Lefer • Shawna Lemay • J. Robert Lennon • Kelly Lenox • Giacomo Leopardi • Ruth Lepson • María Jesús Hernáez Lerena • Naton Leslie • Edouard Levé • Roberta Levine • Samuel Ligon • Erin Lillo • Paul Lindholdt • Leconte de Lisle • Gordon Lish • Yannis Livadas • Billie Livingston • Anne Loecher • Dave Lordan • Bojan Louis • Adrienne Love • Denise Low • Lynda Lowe • Jason Lucarelli • Zachary Rockwell Ludington • Sheryl Luna • Mark Lupinetti • Jeanette Lynes • Joanne Lyons • Andrew MacDonald • Toby MacDonald • Alexander MacLeod • Patrick Madden • John Madera • Randall A. Major • Grant Maierhofer • Keith Maillard • Mary Maillard • Edward Maitino • Rohan Maitzen • Augustín Fernández Mallo • Charlotte Mandell • Louise Manifold • Jonathan Marcantoni • Philip Marchand • Micheline Aharonian Marcom • Vincent Marcone • Josée Marcotte • Julie Marden • Jill Margo • Dave Margoshes • Nicole Markotić • China Marks • André Marois • Jennifer Marquart • Toni Marques • Lucrecia Martel • Deborah Martens • Casper Martin • Cynthia Newberry Martin • Harry Marten • Rebecca Martin • Rick Martin • Ilyana Martinez • Michael Martone • Nicola Masciandaro • Momina Masood • Brook Matson • Melissa Matthewson • Lucy M. May • Stephen May • Micheline Maylor • Marilyn McCabe • Kate McCahill • Thomas McCarthy • Jaki McCarrick • Sharon McCartney • Clint McCown • Margie McDonald • Joseph McElroy • Cassidy McFadzean • Afric McGlinchy • rob mclennan • Paul McMahon • Ross McMeekin • Eoin McNamee • Paul McQuade • Zoë Meager • Ruth Meehan • Court Merrigan • Erica Mihálycsa • Joe Milan • Chris Milk • Billy Mills • Robert Miner • Erika Mihálycsa • Eugene Mirabelli • Rossend Bonás Miró • Salvador Díaz Mirón • Mark Jay Mirsky • Peter Mishler • Michelle Mitchell-Foust • Brenda McKeon • Ariane Miyasaki • Eric Moe • Susie Moloney • Quim Monzó • Jung Young Moon • Jacob McArthur Mooney • Martin Mooney • Gary Moore • Steven Moore • k. a. Moritz • Adam Morris • Keith Lee Morris • Garry Thomas Morse • Erin Morton • Diane Moser • Sarah Moss• Warren Motte • Horacio Castellanos Moya • Guilio Mozzi • Greg Mulcahy • Karen Mulhallen • Gwen Mullins • Hilary Mullins • Andres Muschietti • Robert Musil • Jack Myers • Jean-Luc Nancy • John Nazarenko • David Need • Rik Nelson • Pierre Nepveu • Joshua Neuhouser • Nezahualcóyótl • Levi Nicholat • Nuala Ní Chonchúir • Lorinne Niedecker • Doireann Ní Ghríofa • Christopher Noel • João Gilberto Noll • Lindsay Norville • Franci Novak • Margaret Nowaczyk • Masande Ntshanga • Michael Oatman • Gina Occhiogrosso • Carolyn Ogburn • Timothy Ogene • Kristin Ohman • Megan Okkerse • Susan Olding • Óscar Oliva • Robin Oliveira • Lance Olsen • William Olsen • Barrett Olson-Glover • JC Olsthoorn • Ondjaki • Chika Onyenezi • Patrick O’Reilly • Kay O’Rourke • David Ishaya Osu • John Oughton • Kathy Page • Victoria Palermo • Benjamin Paloff • Yeniffer Pang-Chung • Kathryn Para • Alan Michael Parker • Lewis Parker • Jacob Paul • Cesar Pavese • Keith Payne • Gilles Pellerin • Paul Perilli • Martha Petersen • Pamela Petro • Paul Pines • Pedro Pires • Álvaro Pombo • Jean Portante • Garry Craig Powell • Alison Prine • Sean Preston • John Proctor • Tracy Proctor • Dawn Promislow • Emily Pulfer-Terino • Jennifer Pun • Lynne Quarmby • Donald Quist • Leanne Radojkovich • Dawn Raffel • Heather Ramsay • Rein Raud • Michael Ray • Hilda Raz • Victoria Redel • Kate Reuther • Julie Reverb • Shane Rhodes • Adrian Rice • Matthew Rice • Jamie Richards • Barbara Richardson • Frank Richardson • Mary Rickert • Brendan Riley • Sean Riley • Rainer Maria Rilke • Maria Rivera • Mark Reamy • Nela Rio • David Rivard • Isandra Collazo Rivera • Mary François Rockcastle • Angela Rodel • Johannah Rodgers • Pedro Carmona Rodríguez • Ricardo Félix Rodriguez • Jeanne Rogers • Matt Rogers • Lisa Roney • Leon Rooke • Marilyn R. Rosenberg • Rob Ross • Jess Row • Shambhavi Roy • Mary Ruefle • Chris Russell • Laura-Rose Russell • Ethan Rutherford • Ingrid Ruthig • Tatiana Ryckman • Mary H. Auerbach Rykov • Umberto Saba • Juan José Saer • Stig Sæterbakken • Trey Sager • Andrew Salgado • José Luis Sampedro • Cynthia Sample • Mark Sampson • Jean-Marie Saporito • Maya Sarishvilli • Natalia Sarkissian • Dušan Šarotar • Paul Sattler • Sam Savage • Igiaba Scego • Michael Schatte • Boel Schenlaer • Bradley Schmidt • Elizabeth Schmuhl • Diane Schoemperlen • Joseph Schreiber • Steven Schwartz • Sophfronia Scott • Sarah Scout • Fernando Sdrigotti • Sea Wolf • Mihail Sebastian • Jessica Sequeira • Adam Segal • Mauricio Segura • Shawn Selway • Sarah Seltzer • Maria Sledmere • K. E. Semmel • Robert Semeniuk • Ivan Seng • Pierre Senges • Shelagh Shapiro • Mary Shartle • Eamonn Sheehy • David Shields • Mahtem Shifferaw • Betsy Sholl • Viktor Shklovsky • David Short • Jacob Siefring • Germán Sierra • Eleni Sikelianos • Paul-Armand Silvestre • Goran Simić • James Simmons • Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons • Thomas Simpson • George Singleton • Taryn Sirove • Richard Skinner • SlimTwig • Ben Slotsky • Ariel Smart • Jordan Smith • Kathryn Smith • Maggie Smith • Michael V. Smith • Russell Smith • John Solaperto • Glen Sorestad • Stephen Sparks • D. M. Spitzer • Matthew Stadler • Erin Stagg • Albena Stambolova • Domenic Stansberry • Maura Stanton • Andrzej Stasiuk • Lorin Stein • Mary Stein • Pamela Stewart • Samuel Stolton • Bianca Stone • Bruce Stone • Nathan Storring • John Stout • Darin Strauss • Marjan Strojan • Dao Strom • Cordelia Strube • Dorian Stuber • Andrew F. Sullivan • Spencer Susser • Lawrence Sutin • Terese Svoboda • Gladys Swan • Paula Swicher • George Szirtes • Javier Taboada • Antonio Tabucchi • Zsuzsa Takács • Emili Teixidor • Habib Tengour • Leona Theis • This Is It Collective • Dylan Thomas • Elizabeth Thomas • Hugh Thomas • Lee D. Thompson • Melinda Thomsen • Lynne Tillman • Jean-Philippe Toussaint • Joyce Townsend • Jamie Travis • Julie Trimingham • Ingrid Valencia • Valentin Trukhanenko • Marina Tsvetaeva • Tom Tykwer • Leslie Ullman • Kali VanBaale • Felicia Van Bork • Will Vanderhyden • Charlie Vázquez • Manuel de Jesus Velásquez Léon • S. E. Venart • Rich Villar • Adèle Van Reeth • Nance Van Winckel • Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin • Katie Vibert • Robert Vivian • Liam Volke • Laura Von Rosk • Wendy Voorsanger • Miles Waggener • Catherine Walsh • Joanna Walsh • Wang Ping • Paul Warham • Laura K. Warrell • Brad Watson • Richard Weiner • Roger Weingarten • Tom Pecore Weso • Summar West • Adam Westra • Haijo Westra • Darryl Whetter • Chaulky White • Curtis White • Derek White • Mary Jane White • Diana Whitney • Dan Wilcox • Cheryl Wilder • Tess Wiley • Myler Wilkinson • Diane Williams • Deborah Willis • Eliot Khalil Wilson • Donald Winkler • Colin Winette • Dirk Winterbach • Ingrid Winterbach • Tiara Winter-Schorr • Quintan Ana Wiskwo • David Wojahn • Macdara Woods • Ror Wolf • Benjamin Woodard • Angela Woodward • Russell Working • Liz Worth • Robert Wrigley • Xu Xi • Can Xue • Jung Yewon • Chen Zeping • David Zieroth • Deborah Zlotsky